Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Monday, 21 March 2022
Will Goodings: . We're joined by South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham. Birmo, good morning to you.
Simon Birmingham: Hey, guys, good to be with you. Albeit I might have wished to be with you under slightly different circumstances.
David Penberthy: Can I say though, Birmo we really do appreciate you coming in, particularly being here in the studio with us. It's a bit of a, you know what flavoured sandwich to go through but.
Simon Birmingham: If I carry one reputation. Hopefully it's for fronting up.
Will Goodings: Yeah. No, that's 100%. You do.
David Penberthy: So what do you think went so terribly wrong?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I think Steven Marshall fronting faced really two juggernauts that were very hard to overcome. One was Omicron. And the fact that the carefully laid plans to move from having kept COVID out of the state and kept South Australians safe were completely blown out of the water by the fact that a new variant hit and made it look far more chaotic than actually it was. In the end, our health system held up very well and South Australians continue to be very safe. But COVID went from being a positive to being a real irritant and annoying a lot of people in a whole range of different ways that you couldn't really reconcile either somewhat irritated that it was here at all. Others were irritated there were restrictions around managing it. All of that created frustration. I think the other juggernaut no doubt was, was the Labor campaign. Peter Malinauskas and I've congratulated him personally and I do so publicly to ran a very smooth campaign, a very slick campaign backed in by a very aggressive trade union campaign from the public sector unions in particular. It wasn't all of it honest in terms of what the campaign did or said, but it certainly was effective. And all of those things I think, conspired to create a bigger swing than had been anticipated. I suspect and think genuinely that the Marshall Government will be regarded by history far more kindly than it was by voters on the weekend that what they achieved through COVID, what they achieved in turning around the economy of the state, in getting more high skilled, high paying jobs cemented in the future of this state. What they did in bringing year sevens into high school and reforming school education, in environmental policies in banning single use plastics in a whole range of areas will be seen as very positive reforms that they led. But obviously today it's a disappointing day and a tough time for the state Liberal Party as they seek to rebuild.
Will Goodings: Well, to that point then about the aggressiveness of the Labor campaign and the robustness of the arguments put by the trade unions, did you guys just play too nice?
Simon Birmingham: Look, there may be an element of that and frankly, there's perhaps an element of that in terms of the fact that Steven Marshall as a leader was one not prone to grandstanding. If we think through the COVID years, he didn't grandstand like the other premiers. He stood there alongside Grant Stephens and Nicola Spurrier. They worked together as a trifecta of leaders, in a sense, navigating the way through. But he never sought to overshadow them in the same way that other state premiers did. He didn't pick fights with Canberra when other state premiers picked fights with Canberra and perhaps the campaign had a similar absence of that, that boldness, Steven, was somebody who sought to calmly, thoughtfully deal with the issues and it's sad in some ways that politics has punished him for that.
David Penberthy: But does that point to a broader issue? I mean, you think about some of the really successful long term premiers interstate. I mean, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and then subsequently Labor's Peter Beattie both made an art form of I'm going to stand up to Canberra. Conversely here and thinking of Bob Carr, who was a four term Labor premier, whenever there was a problem in New South Wales with things like the train Carr would always stand up going, I'm hauling in the rail chiefs, this is totally unacceptable. I'm going to tell these bureaucrats what's what. If Marshall's just sort of seem so managerial and so sort of polite and chummy with Scott Morrison. That there was a sort of insipid this might be too strong a word, but does it show that the libs need to muscle up a bit more and think harder about the art of politics. Because all of those other politicians I mentioned were in power for a very, very long time.
Simon Birmingham: Look, David, I think there's an element of that that's accurate and reflect on my remark before. And I think history will judge the Marshall government more kindly for its policy achievements, for its reforms, for how it managed the state than the voters did on the weekend. And inherent in that is that they were actually quite a good government when it came to policy and management and what they achieved. Where they were let down clearly was in the politics. And you can't deny that when you get an election result like this. Now, how that how that came about, it's a challenge. I would wish that voters put more regard for a leader who didn't have to chest beat, who didn't seek to blame. I mean, some of the examples you just gave me that a state premier who holds in the heads of state agencies to say it's not good enough, he's also a state leader who's not taking really responsibility themselves. Sure, they're seeking to shove the blame off onto others. Yes, Stevens style was often to say, yes, there's a problem and we all have to work through it. That is that's a realistic approach. But it's an approach that that in this campaign, at least, where Labor then, you know, honed in in a very singular way on a single issue, I sort of defy many people to suggest Labor campaigned on anything other than health and ramping. And of course, we're caught out by the electoral commission all too late in the piece of having run misleading advertising around that. But it worked, it hurt and especially that combination of effort between the Labor Party and the unions. And I think this is a problem in terms of South Australia's campaign funding and financing rules as well, that all the parties operate under a cap on spending. The problem is the unions get to spend separate from the Labor Party's cap. So the Liberal Party fronts up against essentially multiple enemies, whilst Labor gets to have the various trade union elements run additional funding and additional campaigning over and above what the Labor Party spends.
Will Goodings: Typically you might have some support from Business SA or the Hotels Association too. That wasn't going to be forthcoming based on the situation here. Can I ask you about the federal political scene? Because if you transpose the result from Saturday over the federal political map of South Australia, suddenly places like Sturt and obviously Boothby look concerning. What's your level of concern for those seats ahead of the federal election?
Simon Birmingham: Look, we've had a long time in this state where we've been governed by the Labor Party. They've since, since Tom Playford left, they've ruled South Australia for 74% of the time. Over the sort of similar time horizon since Menzies founded the Liberal Party we've governed Australia for 70% of the time, so you can see there that it's not uncommon. In fact it is more often than not the case that we have opposite sitting at a federal level to a state level and that I think that partly plays into the issues. We had a state election largely fought on health. Federal elections historically tend to hone in on the economy, on economic management, on taxes, on job security, on national security. And these are many of the issues that have got very globally uncertain times at present. I would expect the next federal election to be fought on. So we take nothing for granted and there are certainly lessons for the campaign. But the issue is when South Australians come to vote at the federal election will be distinctly different issues. It will be about the cost of living pressures they're facing. Which party is a greater risk of higher taxes? Which party is more secure for their jobs? And I think on that we will have a strong track record and we will sell it very, very hard.
David Penberthy: Birmo, Senator Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia and Finance Minister in the Morrison Government. Thank you very much for coming in today.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys. My pleasure.