Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
ALICE WORKMAN: Finance Minister Mathias Cormann thanks so much for joining us here at Buzzfeed News.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Good to be here.
ALICE WORKMAN: Same sex marriage, it has been the talk of the town in Canberra this week. Isn’t this just a plebiscite on whether or not the Liberals should be holding a conscience vote on same sex marriage?
MATHIAS CORMANN: This is about giving the Australian people a say on whether or not the definition of marriage should be changed, whether the laws should be changed, to allow same sex couples to marry. That is a firm commitment that we made to the Australian people in the lead up to the last election and it is a promise we intend to keep. Our preference would have been for that to be done through a compulsory personal attendance plebiscite on the 25 of November, but the Senate again rejected our proposal to give effect to that. We are now doing the next best thing in order to keep faith with the promise we made to the Australian people and that is to pursue a voluntarily postal plebiscite.
ALICE WORKMAN: You have said it is about the Australian people having a say, but the new WA Liberal Senator who is your former Chief of Staff, Slade Brockman, said that he will ignore any plebiscite result and just vote no. So what is the point of holding it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: What the Government has said is that if there is a yes vote at the end of the plebiscite process, the Government will facilitate consideration of a Private Member’s Bill through the Parliament to change the law, to allow same sex couples to marry. We are very confident that that would pass the Parliament after a yes vote.
ALICE WORKMAN: But you are you happy with your Senators voting against what the plebiscite result is?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We have been very clear, the Government will facilitate consideration of a Private Member’s Bill through the Parliament. We are very confident that such a Bill would pass the Parliament before the end of the year in the scenario where there is a yes vote. But we will not be binding our Members along those lines.
ALICE WORKMAN: There has been a High Court challenge issued this week against the postal plebiscite. What happens if they rule that it is not legal?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We are very confident that we have the Constitutional power and the legal authority to conduct the postal plebiscite process through the ABS. We are very confident and we are just getting on with the job.
ALICE WORKMAN: But if they rule that it is not legal, can you hold it anyway?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Well it is entirely a matter for the High Court now. The Government is very confident that we have the Constitutional power and the legal authority. People are entitled to test that. Somebody has decided to test it and it is now a matter for the High Court to determine the outcome. I might just say, that you might recall because I remember that you were there, we had a very long debate on Senate voting reforms and a number of people took advantage of their opportunity to challenge what they perceived to be the Constitutional invalidity of our Senate voting reforms and of course the High Court upheld the Government’s reforms on that occasion. We go into this process confident of our legal position.
ALICE WORKMAN: But do you have a contingency plan in case they rule no?
MATHIAS CORMANN: This is now a matter for the High Court and we will participate…interrupted.
ALICE WORKMAN: But you must have thought about it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We will get on with the job unless or until we are told otherwise. We fully respect the High Court’s processes.
ALICE WORKMAN: To the logistics of how it will work. Is the wording of the question the same as what was proposed last time?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Yes. It is precisely the same question. It is essentially going to be a question about people’s views on whether they believe the laws should be changed to allow same sex couples to marry.
ALICE WORKMAN: And the Bill that will be voted on if the plebiscite result is a yes, will that be released to the public so they know what will go through, what will be legalised after the plebiscite?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Well it is a Private Member’s Bill, it is not a Government Bill…interrupted.
ALICE WORKMAN: So will it be Dean Smith’s Bill?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is a matter for the Parliament. The whole point of a Private Member’s Bill is…interrupted.
ALICE WORKMAN: But shouldn’t people see what the legal change would be before they vote?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The question is precisely the same question as we put forward in the proposal…interrupted.
ALICE WORKMAN: Yeah the question is the same, but what if there is a clause in the Bill that is put in as part of the compromise at the last minute? Shouldn’t people know that?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I am very intrigued about your line of questioning because I assume that you are asking Bill Shorten the same question about his proposal to hold a plebiscite on the republic.
ALICE WORKMAN: He is not in Government. I will ask him though if he will present the Bill before the plebiscite, sure.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Our position is very clear. We will facilitate consideration of a Private Member’s Bill after a plebiscite if the yes vote has been carried. We believe the question is self-explanatory. We believe that people across Australia understand what the question is and we would encourage everyone to have their say, everyone to participate in the process. If you are in favour of change, vote yes. If you are against change, if you support the current definition of marriage, vote no. We encourage everyone to vote consistent with their views and for those that are involved in the campaign on both sides of the argument, we encourage them to engage in the campaign in a courteous and respectful manner.
ALICE WORKMAN: Is the reason that you are running it through the Bureau of Statistics because it would be unconstitutional for the AEC to do it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Government is confident that we have a Constitutional and legal way forward in keeping faith with our commitment to the Australian people to give them their say. We have decided to conduct this process through the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Clearly the Commonwealth Parliament has the power to make laws consistent with Section 51 of the Constitution in relation to census and statistics. The Parliament has made such laws, we have the Census and Statistics Act 1905 and the ABS Act 1975. Under the Constitutional provisions and the relevant legislation we are confident that the ABS and the Australian Statistician has the power and the authority to seek the information and expend the public money required to conduct this process.
ALICE WORKMAN: Speaking of the ABS, the most high profile thing they have done in the last year was the called #censusfail on Twitter. So they had years to prepare for the Census. It did not go very well. They have a few weeks to prepare for this plebiscite. Are you confident that they are not going to stuff it up?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We have full confidence in the Australian Bureau of Statistics and they will be provided with all the necessary resources. As the Finance Minister, I have already signed a determination to make the necessary funds available to the ABS in order to conduct this postal plebiscite process.
ALICE WORKMAN: What about people living overseas, in terms of getting the vote? Will they have to vote at an embassy or will it come in the mail and they will have to send it back?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Every single Australian who is in registered on the Commonwealth Electoral Roll, who is enrolled on the Commonwealth Electoral Roll will receive the necessary documentation to have their say, to participate in this process. Every single Australian who is on the electoral roll who lives overseas who is registered with an overseas address with the Electoral Commission on the electoral roll will receive their documentation at their overseas address.
ALICE WORKMAN: But will, in terms of just the physical capacity of sending and returning things from overseas, it takes a month sometimes for things to arrive from say Europe. Is that factored into counting or will they get their ballots early?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Well, all of these matters will be announced in due course, but let me assure you that every Australian will have ample opportunity not only to receive their documentation to participate in this process but also to get to return the completed documentation in the appropriate time frames.
ALICE WORKMAN: There has been a lot of kind of jokes about young people. People from your own party, Andrew Laming, he said that the ballot is likely to underrepresent young people because they may not have fixed addresses, or they may not use the mail. Are you going to do some public service announcements, hey kids this is what a stamp is? Is that what you are planning to do?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Every person who is enrolled on the electoral roll, every person has to be of a certain age, and every person who is enrolled on the electoral roll has to be enrolled at a physical address. I am very confident that the young people of Australia know what a letterbox is. I am very confident that given that they would be receiving all of their documentation from the Electoral Commission in writing in the mail in their letterbox now, that they will be able to find their letters, they will be able to open their letters, they will be able to read it and they will be able to fill in the documentation and they will be able to participate in the process and have their say. We are very confident and we certainly encourage all of the young people of Australia to have their say in relation to this postal plebiscite process.
ALICE WORKMAN: Have you had any consideration around the potential for people, say, to steal their neighbour’s ballot papers and vote on their behalf?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Postal voting and postal plebiscites are a well-established tool in many democracies around the world…interrupted
ALICE WORKMAN: But are they being sent on registered mail? Because if they come in your letterbox, couldn’t I just look in your mailbox, take your ballot paper?
MATHIAS CORMANN: If you did that you would be committing an offence which would be punishable by a prison term…interrupted
ALICE WORKMAN: But the AEC is not running the plebiscite.
MATHIAS CORMANN: This is actually not under AEC legislation, this is under relevant postal and communications related legislation. I mean what you are suggesting is that people would commit a criminal offence, that they would essentially expose themselves to criminal prosecution. Well the best advice I have is that in all of the postal voting exercises that have taken place in Australia, and remember in the context of a Federal Election, a large proportion of the population actually votes by postal vote then, that there is no evidence of any widespread problem along the lines that you are suggesting. If people were to do the wrong thing, there would be penalties that would be the consequence of that.
ALICE WORKMAN: So would the same checking happen say in a normal Federal Election where people get marked off on the roll. So they get caught if they vote twice. So will there be numbers on the ballot papers to check?
MATHIAS CORMANN: These processes are run by independent statutory agencies. In this case it is the ABS that will run this and the ABS will be responsible for ensuring the integrity of this process. These are professionals, these are experts that know how to run these processes in a way that ensures that the public can have confidence in the integrity of the outcome.
ALICE WORKMAN: I had someone, we told Twitter that we were doing this interview and I had someone ask me to ask you on their behalf, if you are a closeted 18 year old still living at home with homophobic parents, how can you ensure the privacy of your vote without outing yourself?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Again, letters are directed to people as individuals and if you are an 18 year old who is enrolled on the electoral roll, that is your property. A piece of mail that is directed to you is directed to you and nobody else. If you are 18 and over, nobody else should have access to any such correspondence.
ALICE WORKMAN: You said this week that you think that the campaign will be respectful but in the past 24 hours, someone from your own party, former Liberal MP, Bronwyn Bishop has said on national TV that same sex marriage could lead to polygamy and bestiality. Do you think that is respectful?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I think that these are unfortunate comments. I do believe, I would say, to everyone involved, on both sides of this debate, that it is very important for all of us, it is very important for the Australian Community on both sides of the argument, that this debate is handled with courtesy and respect. There are strongly and sincerely held views by good people, on both sides of the argument. I believe that the Australian people can deal with this issue in a courteous and respectful way. Wherever people are making statements that are inappropriate, then that is regrettable. Sadly from time-to-time, people from both sides of the argument might go beyond what is appropriate. I think that our democracy can handle that. What I would say to all people with an interest in this debate, is that we now have a period of three and a half months that will lead to an outcome. After we have the outcome, the losing side will be in a better position to accept that outcome and the community as a whole can move forward. I believe that if we handle this right, this will be a unifying opportunity for the country. Yes, there will be some debates along the way. I cannot guarantee that every single person participating in this debate is going to do it in the appropriate way…interrupted.
ALICE WORKMAN: But these comments have been happening since the idea of a plebiscite was first raised and the Government have not called them out? Is the Government going to call people out for making harmful accusations or saying things…interrupted.
MATHIAS CORMANN: You have asked me a question just now and I have answered it very plainly. What I would say though…interrupted.
ALICE WORKMAN: But are you going to call the comments out?
MATHIAS CORMANN: You have asked the question, may I answer it.
ALICE WORKMAN: Of course.
MATHIAS CORMANN: The truth is, whether it is in this debate or other debates, it is not because we are proposing a plebiscite that some people are making contributions that are hurtful and seen to be hurtful. This is not causing it. I think that you will find that in this debate and in other debates, there have always been people who might go beyond what should be said, go beyond what they should be saying. This process will actually bring this issue to a resolution. This process offers to bring a level of finality to an issue that Australian’s have been debating for many, many years. We believe that by giving all Australians on the electoral roll an opportunity to have their say, to make them part of the decision making process, that whatever the decision, whoever is on the losing side, will be able to better accept that that is a decision which they have been able to participate in. That is why we are making this opportunity available.
ALICE WORKMAN: The AMA have said that the same sex marriage debate, it could become a public health issue and could be linked to suicides potentially. Will the Government take responsibility if any harm is caused?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I think that is an unfair question, I have to say. I will answer it, but I think it is an unfair question. The truth is, the debate is happening now, the debate is happening irrespective of whether or not we have a plebiscite. The thing that the plebiscite offers is a conclusion. The thing that the plebiscite offers is a way forward that ultimately will settle this issue on a more permanent basis. The truth is, that this issue and the proposition that the law should be changed to allow same sex couples to marry has come before Parliament on several occasions. I believe that I have dealt with it on four occasions in the 10 years that I have been in the Parliament and on each occasion the Parliament has reconfirmed the current definition of marriage. Which the losing side of the argument, in Parliament and in the community has not accepted. If the Parliament were to deal with this again, and even if the decision was the other way around, which I do not know if it would be incidentally. But even if the decision was the other way around, I am confident that the losing side of the argument in the community, would not accept the outcome. I believe, and the Government believes, that by giving every Australian the opportunity to have a say on this, by giving every Australian the opportunity to participate in the decision making process, that the ultimate decision will generate a broader community consensus around the change if that is the outcome of the plebiscite. I believe that if we go through this process in the right way, then this can enable the community to move forward on a more permanent basis in relation to an issue that, quite frankly, has been debated for better or for worse for a very long time.
ALICE WORKMAN: I think everyone agrees on that. Will MP’s be allowed to use their operational budgets to send out material for either side of the campaign?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The usual rules would apply in relation to communications by Members of Parliament. So Members of Parliament can express views in relation to all sorts of matters. So the usual and normal rules would apply in relation to their use of their work expense arrangements.
ALICE WORKMAN: Finally, Minister, the name of the podcast, is ‘Is it on?’, so I have to ask the obligatory question, there has been leadership speculation surrounding the same sex marriage debate, what do you think? Is it on?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I am hearing rumours that Anthony Albanese is working very hard getting the numbers to topple Bill Shorten.
ALICE WORKMAN: So that is it, it on in the Labor Party, but not in the Liberal Party?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We are a very strong and united team.
ALICE WORKMAN: That is good to hear, Mathias Cormann, thank you so much for joining us hear on BuzzFeed News ‘Is it on?’