Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Thursday, 12 November 2020
PATRICIA KARVELAS: For more on this and other issues, I spoke to Finance Minister Simon Birmingham a short time ago. Minister, welcome.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good to be with you.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you anticipate that some soldiers will be stripped of medals or honours as a result of the investigation into alleged war crimes?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: These things are all possible. Australians should be very proud of servicemen and women and the contribution that they make, but they also need to have trust and confidence in them, in all that they do. And this has been a lengthy process, but it is a process that shows that in a country like Australia, nobody is beyond investigation. Everybody must adhere to the type of standards that are appropriately set, and the Government has outlined today the type of actions that we will be putting in place, in response to this comprehensive report and investigation that's been undertaken, to make sure that we have the resources and the independent investigatory facilities there, to pursue prosecutions or other steps. Including those types of steps you mentioned, that the ADF themselves may find themselves undertaking.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Should that only happen - in terms of stripping of honours - in cases where people are convicted?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, these are matters for the established processes and practices that are there, that operate between the ADF and other functions that are responsible for these elements. And the Government certainly doesn't want to see any aspect of this politicised. It's a very serious issue. We want to make sure that our Defence Force, who are held in high regard across Australia and internationally, continue to have the confidence wherever they go into operations, and that's why this has been a very thorough process. And it is of course why we will take the outcomes of the report very seriously and no doubt why next week the Chief of the Defence Force will outline the type of steps that can be taken in relation to those other matters.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: What do you make of the Greens' argument that the special investigator shouldn't have ties to the Australian Defence Force?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We will make sure the appropriate independence that needs to be there in relation to the investigations and ultimately if need be prosecutions that take place. The Government has been very thorough, having commissioned this work a number of years ago, dedicated the resources that were necessary for it all to be undertaken, and now prior to the release of the report, outlining the fact there will be this office of special investigations who will have the power to move forward in terms of prosecution, if need be. Nothing will be left on the table in that regard, and we will make sure that everything occurs as it should to guarantee the confidence in our Defence personnel.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Let's just move to another issue. You are, of course, Finance Minister. What redress is available to former Liberal staffer Rachelle Miller if the Department of Finance substantiates her workplace bullying claim?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the Department of Finance will talk through what options may or may not be available to any individual, and whilst she has chosen to make public her complaint, these matters are handled completely independent of me as the minister or any member of the Government. The Department of Finance has an established bullying and harassment code. Any member of the Parliament staff can make a complaint through that process, knowing that I won't be informed of it, or involved in it, or any other member of the Government in that regard.
And that, indeed, it will only ever be discussed with their employing member of Parliament, with their consent, and that they have a full thorough investigatory process has is there. And in terms of options for recourse, that depends very much on the type of circumstances at the end. But the Department of Finance do discuss those sorts of options with an individual.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. But, of course, she has put it on the record so it has very much become a public issue, as you know. Do you believe the MoPS Act - which is the act that governs how staffing operates - provides adequate industrial protections for political staffers?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the MoPS Act operates in conjunction with these types of policies, workplace harassment and bullying policies being in place, that are not unlike the type of standards that are expected elsewhere across the workforce. The MoPS Act provides for counselling services, mentoring services, including intervention and discussion with employing members or senators where that's appropriate.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. Do you think the MoPS Act should be looked at or reviewed? That's really at the heart of what I'm asking. Do you think it's time to look at better protections and support for political staffers?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I've extended to all members and senators who may have an interest in terms of how these practices work and, indeed, the offer goes to staff as well. The opportunity to talk to the Department of Finance about the way in which they conduct these investigations, the way in which they assess matters, and the type of recourse that is available. Certainly if out of those discussions people come forward with particular suggestions, well, I'll listen and work through any of those. It's important to me and to the Government that there is an appropriate standard in place. It also has to be a standard that ensures fair process for all parties involved. And I think that is always an important consideration into these matters as well.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. So, just to be crystal clear about what you're saying you're prepared to do. You're saying you're taking feedback about how that works, the MoPS Act, and you're open to making changes to better protect staff?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I'm not saying that there are about to be any changes. What I am saying is we have a very thorough, and a very independent process in place already. And for those who have sought to question that process this week, I have been clear that if they wish, they should sit down, talk to the Department of Finance. It's not me as the Finance Minister who conducts those investigations. As I said before, I don’t even-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: No, but if they think it's not good enough- at the heart of my question is you, as the Government, as the responsible Minister, are you prepared to change legislation to better protect these staff?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I will encourage people to sit down, understand what actually happens at present in terms of the independent and thorough way in which complaints can be investigated. If colleagues want to talk to me after that, then I'm always happy to have a discussion.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. Should the code of conduct, introduced by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, be extended to all MPs and expanded to cover bullying?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, bullying is not acceptable. Bullying is not acceptable let’s be very clear there. And the code of conduct in terms of the expectations that are placed on ministers makes that clear.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. So, from the actual document, right, from the Department's own policy guide on bullying and harassment, where a complaint is substantiated, Finance has no capacity to take disciplinary action against either a Parliamentarian or a MoPS Act employee? So, they can't do anything. You’ve got to change the rules, don't you?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the Department of Finance does undertake interventions where the complainant wishes and where the case has been substantiated. They have the capacity, at the complainant's agreement, to work through issues with a member of Senate and their office and try to find resolution in relation to how these types of issues can most appropriately be handled to the satisfaction of parties who may be facing any issues.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah, but with respect, I just read to you the rules and the rules show they have no capacity to take disciplinary action. That's an issue, isn't it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Patricia, I think you would appreciate that a circumstance where a Member of Parliament elected by the people in their electorate sits in this Parliament, is a separate question in a sense to other matters that may come in here. There are of course, if legal offences have taken place or the like, then there are procedures that Members of Parliament are held to the same account as anybody else in relation to those matters.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you consider the Parliament a high-risk workplace?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, the Parliament is a high pressure workplace, I certainly acknowledge that. The Parliament meets for long hours, has serious and significant issues to deal with, During the course of the day and the Senate is debating matters that relate to the effective operation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme; it’s also debating matters in relation to how we enhance recycling; and, that’s on top of, of course, the ongoing work around responding to the pandemic and the economic support that needs to be in place for all Australians.
So, the Parliament is a high-pressure workplace. How that pressure translates into risks, look, I think that's a judgement that some will debate. I have to say that I've always found the offices that I have worked in - whether many, many years ago as a staffer, or through the last few years as a senator and a minister - have been functioning offices with a good team environment.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Maybe your ones have been, but I’ll- let's park that issue because I really want to know how much support are you expecting from the states and territories for your plan to kick start international travel?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I hope the states and territories can continue to work with its own number one priority, which is to bring Australians home and to continue to facilitate that safe return home of Australians. And I thank the states and territories for the steps that have been taken to increase the quarantine capacity - we've taken steps in that regard as well as- in addition to putting on further charter flights to get more people home. But, we need to continue to look at what pathways can be pursued there.
The decision in relation to New Zealand arrivals no longer being subject to quarantine freed up more capacity, and it was a very sensible decision. And it’s that type of evidence-based approach that we need to continue to follow.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Does the move to home quarantine make it easier to bring Australians home? And, would that work as a model for tourists?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, anything that- anything, as with the New Zealand decision, that potentially takes some people out of the capped number of places the states and territories have for home quarantine, and enables others to take those places, of course increases the capacity for people to come in, but it can only be done where it's safe to do so and that is- that’s very important. We made the steps in relation to New Zealand because it was demonstrably safe to do so, and it made no sense to be subjecting New Zealanders to 14 days in a hotel room.
Now, in terms of home quarantine, many of the states who have applied who have applied quarantine regimes against one another during the pandemic, have done so on the basis of using home quarantine as a baseline. So, it may be possible, if you look at the evidence and follow what health officers have advised during the course of the pandemic, that from countries with basically no risk, like New Zealand, you can just let people freely move. From places with next to no, or very, very low risk, home quarantine may be a viable option, just as it was a viable option for many states and territories as people sought to move across state borders at different stages.
But where there is a genuine and acknowledged risk, then the quarantine practices that we have remain a very important buffer and protection.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, what representations have you made about an Indian ship carrying Australian coal, that's stranded off the coast of China?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: This is a deeply troubling report, and our government has made representations through our embassy and to Chinese officials about this ship. It is deeply troubling, particularly because it goes beyond the mere question of trade, and involves the question, of course, of individuals whose have found themselves at sea for a prolonged period of time. And we would urge Chinese authorities, together with the shipping company and the company whose product is on board, to work together to find a resolution to this issue.
We know that in relation to coal trade into China, that it goes through great peaks and troughs, and there's been a significant trough in the last month or so, it's not a usual thing to see that downturn. But this ship has been there for a considerable period of time, and, those on board it deserves to have this issue resolved between those parties.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: What have you been able to find out about the reasons for China’s decision to ban Victorian timbre?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well those reasons, China has given technical reasons and whilst we respect the different technical considerations that come about, in terms of ensuring the safety and integrity of product going into a market. And we do that when importing natural products into Australia, there are standards and checks that have to be put in place.
However, I note there has been a consistent theme of these sorts of technical issues in relation to what we would usually consider to be safe and reliable Australian product, and that is a very concerning and troubling aspect in relation to what seems to be a recurring targeting of some Australian industries, and we urge China to give clarity around the type of practices that are being applied here, because this type of disruption and uncertainty is hurting not only Australian businesses, but those Chinese businesses who rely upon Australian product.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, just finally, does the resignation of pro-Democracy MPs in Hong Kong signal the end of the One Country, Two Systems?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, it is a very concerning step away from the type of commitments that were given at the time of handover, commitments that are formed in international law as the basis of a treaty between China and the UK - as part of the handover. We have expressed quite clearly our concern about that, along with the concerns of many, many other countries. Now, Hong Kong still has legal practices and legal systems that are distinct and different from mainland China, but we would urge and encourage respect - not only for those elements of the different system in Hong Kong that are there, but ideally reinstatement of those that have been stripped away.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, thanks for joining me.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thank you. My pleasure.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham, and for the time being he's also the Minister for Trade and Tourism.