Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
MATHIAS CORMANN: This morning in the Senate the debate on the Medical Research Future Fund will resume. I would like to thank Senator Richard Di Natale and the Greens for their constructive engagement with the Government in seeking to achieve the successful passage of what is a very important initiative, which will see a very significant boost in the level of public investment into important medical research moving forward. I call on Bill Shorten and the Labor party to join in a bipartisan effort to make that very important initiative a reality. Happy to take questions.
QUESTION: How do you sum up the meeting last night?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We had a very good discussion, a very respectful discussion in our party room yesterday. As you know, the Coalition, the Liberal party, the National party and indeed the Parliament have a very long standing policy position in support of the current definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. This issue has come before the Parliament on a number of occasions in recent years and on each occasion the Parliament has reaffirmed its policy position in support of the current definition of marriage. Indeed, the Coalition last night again reaffirmed what has been a very long standing policy position. That clarifies the matter for this term of Parliament. It means that we keep faith with the commitments that we made to the electorate in the lead up to the last election. But we also do understand that given how this issue has come back again and again to the Parliament in recent years, that in order to facilitate a more permanent resolution of this issue in the future that it might well be best to put this question to the Australian people as part of a specific vote some time in the next term of Parliament. But that is a matter, that as a Coalition, we will need to determine a bit closer to the next election.
QUESTION: If there is going to be a plebiscite or a referendum, why not consider having it before the next election as opposed to after to quell any concerns that this is just a delaying tactic.
MATHIAS CORMANN: This is not a delaying tactic. As I have just indicated to you, the Coalition has had a very long standing policy position in support of the current definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. We said going into the last election that that is the position that we would maintain. That we would, if the issue came up again in this term of Parliament, we would put it to the party room to consider. The party room has considered this issue yesterday at length. The Prime Minister showed great leadership in giving the party room all of the time and all of the space it needed to properly consider all of the issues. Many of my colleagues on all sides of the argument made very thoughtful, very considered contributions to that debate. The party room determined that our policy position would remain. As part of the discussion though, we also recognised that after this term of Parliament, at some point in the period of the next Parliament, it might be best to put the issue to the Australian people in order to facilitate a more permanent resolution of this question.
QUESTION: Is there a concern that some frontbenchers may have to resign from their positions if this is put to a vote and they’re forced to otherwise vote against their conscience?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I hope not. The position that the Coalition reaffirmed yesterday is the position that the Coalition has had in place for some time. Every single member of the frontbench has operated, up until yesterday, under a Coalition policy in support of the current definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The Coalition last night decided to reaffirm that policy. In Australia we do operate under the Westminster system of government, which involves collective ministerial responsibility as its foundation. So it is a very important feature of our system that those of us who accept the privilege of executive responsibility have to support the policies of the Government. That has been the longstanding, very longstanding, principle under which governments in the Westminster system operate. If you come to an issue without a policy position, sure, you have the luxury of determining that you’re not going to put in place a policy and that everyone can vote as they see fit. But in relation to the definition of marriage, the Coalition has had a longstanding policy position. The Coalition last night reaffirmed that longstanding policy position. As such it is incumbent on every member of the executive to support that policy position, which is the position today for every single member of the frontbench of the Government is the same as it was before yesterday.
QUESTION: How do you know that many Coalition voters didn’t vote for you in spite of the fact that you’re anti-gay marriage? That they overlooked it, considering that the polling suggested that the majority of Australians support it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Our policy position in support of the current definition of marriage, the very long standing policy position was formalised in the Marriage Act by Parliament, with bipartisan support at the time incidentally, back in 2004 or thereabouts. We have gone to election after election recommitting ourselves to a policy position in support of the current definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. That is the position that the Coalition party room reaffirmed last night. In the lead up to the last election the Prime Minister did offer the prospect that if this issue came up again in this term of Parliament that the issue would be considered by the Coalition party room in the usual way. That is what happened last night over a very extensive conversation, a very extensive discussion. The party room reaffirmed the position that has been our position for a very long time.
QUESTION: How safe is Tony Abbott’s leadership considering the amount of heated debate that was within the party room and particularly allegations that this should have been dealt with in the Liberal party room and not the Coalition party room so as to not bring in that conservative element of your coalition?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Prime Minister demonstrated great leadership yesterday. It was a very good, a very respectful discussion in the party room yesterday. It is a discussion that in the end, as it always does, led to an outcome. As always is the case, on any issue where there are strongly held views on both sides of the argument, some people are a little disappointed with the decision that was taken. On a number of occasions I am on the side of the argument that does not prevail. It might surprise you but that is indeed the case. The same as every one of my colleagues in those circumstances, once the debate has been had, we all join, shoulder to shoulder, and promote the policy position that has been adopted by the Coalition.
QUESTION: Do you think the public will buy that message that Tony Abbott has support?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The public gets their opportunity every three years to pass judgement at an election. At the last election, the public overwhelmingly supported the election of the Abbott Government. At the next election the public will have the opportunity to pass judgement on our performance, on what we have done, what we are doing, on what we are promising to do as part of a second term agenda and pass judgement on whether or not they trust the alternative government putting themselves forward. That will be a matter for the next election.
QUESTION: The Prime Minister said just a couple of months ago that this should be owned by Parliament, now he is saying he’s looking to the people for a plebiscite, previously he said it should be up to the party room, why so many changing positions on who should decide this, does it look like avoidance?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I have been in the Parliament now for just over eight years. In that period I have voted on several occasions now in relation to this issue. The Parliament on each occasion has reaffirmed its current position in support of the current definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Despite the repeated votes in the Senate or now as it has emerged again in this current context, the issue keeps coming back. On reflection and in the context of the conversation that we had in the party room yesterday, there is an increasing feeling that perhaps the best way to provide the opportunity for a more permanent resolution to ensure this issue doesn’t keep coming back that perhaps the best way is to put it to the Australian people in one way or another in the next term of the Parliament.
QUESTION: Having a plebiscite on gay marriage will be an expensive exercise. Is there any consideration of having it at the same time as a referendum on constitutional recognition of indigenous people?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of how this may or may not happen in the course of the next Parliament. You would want to conduct any such process in the most efficient and cost effective way. In the lead up to the next election, as the Prime Minister has indicated, the Coalition will determine the approach that we will take to the next election and these sorts of details would be announced at that time.
QUESTION: How did the party room respond to Josh Frydenberg’s invoking of the Menzies name and that not allowing a free vote would fly in the face of Liberal values?
MATHIAS CORMANN: My very good friend Josh Frydenberg gave a very powerful speech. He is a highly valued, very strongly performing senior member of our team. In relation to this issue, what I would say is that there is a difference between the circumstance where the Coalition, or the Liberal party for that matter, comes to an issue without a pre-existing policy position and as such can make a decision on whether to adopt a policy or not to adopt a policy. If you don’t have a policy then of course there is the opportunity for a free vote. if you do have a policy position then it is incumbent on members of the executive to support that policy position. It was open to the party room yesterday to decide to drop the policy, but what the party room did yesterday was reaffirm the policy. To reaffirm the policy position that we have had for some time to support the current definition of marriage between a man and a woman and as such every member of the executive has to support it. The opportunity for a free vote is there if there is no policy. The opportunity for a free vote for members of the executive is not there when there is a formally adopted policy position. Thank you.