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Politics with Michelle Grattan: Simon Birmingham on the Voice, Aston, the Liberals, Uranium

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Simon Birmingham on the Voice, Aston, the Liberals, Uranium

The Liberals have formally decided to oppose the Voice. Peter Dutton has declared he will campaign against it, a high risk strategy when polls are showing a majority of Australians currently support a “yes” vote.

Noel Pearson was scathing of the Liberal Party, calling the decision not to support the Voice “a Judas betrayal of our country”. Moderate Liberal MP Bridget Archer will campaign for the “yes” case.

In this podcast, Michelle Grattan and Senator Simon Birmingham, leader of the opposition in the senate, and one of the few remaining moderates in the party, discuss the Voice, the Aston byelection defeat and “where to now?” for the Liberal Party.

Birmingham wishes more had been done by previous governments, “in the Rudd, Gillard, or Abbott years,” to advance Indigenous recognition.

“If we look at the substance of recognition and Voice, there are vexing issues.”

“They’re also vexing in regards to how you apply them against certain philosophical traits as to whether embedding a different platform for one part of the community in terms of engagement is a liberal or an illiberal concept […] I think there are serious questions there around this.”

“And sadly, as I look at it, I think that achieving national consensus on this topic has only gotten harder and harder over the many years since constitutional recognition was first discussed actively in the Howard government. And in many ways I wish it had been acted upon back then in the Rudd, Gillard or Abbott years.”

Birmingham doesn’t see the Liberal Party being on the wrong side of history in the referendum, but wants to see an open debate. “Australians will make their own mind up and that is at least the beauty of a referendum – we’ll get a clear and decisive result one way or the other as to where Australians stand.”

When asked if a pollster were to call him asking which way he would vote, Birmingham avoids a straight answer, but says he is open to “bipartisanship in working through the details in any referendum”.

“I hope that if there is something that can still be salvaged for national unity out of having a clear bipartisan constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, that that is achieved.”

“I hope if clear evidence comes forward during the parliamentary committee process to narrow the scope of the constitutional change that the government has put forward, that I listen to that evidence and try to convince a reconsideration around some of those factors.”

Birmingham concedes the Liberal Party has a lot of rebuilding to do, a point reinforced by the Aston trouncing. Areas needing attention include the migrant vote, women, and the younger generations, he says.

“We do face a vastly different electorate today to the one of some decades ago, and even not that long ago. If you look at some of the rate of change, the fastest growing segment of the workforce are professional women. And urbanisation has only continued to occur at a higher rate, particularly driven by waves of migration with significant numbers of Chinese Australians, Indian Australians and other cohorts growing in number.”

“Now those changes don’t mean that Liberal values are any less relevant today than they have been in the past […] but we do have to make sure that they are framed in a way that is relevant and engaging to electorates and to the modern electorate that we need to appeal to.”

“I think that means looking at how we can engage younger families and younger voters with effective policies about their economic security and especially in relation to the pursuit of home ownership.”

“That means ensuring that in all of those cases about job security, home ownership aspirations, the other aspirations they have that need to be underpinned by a strong economy. We also need to make sure that all feel included in those discussions, regardless of the background they come from, the migrant background or the construct or nature of their family”.

There’s a big push within the Coalition at the moment to embrace nuclear energy.

Birmingham sees the acceptance of nuclear-powered submarines as pointing to a wide change in attitudes towards nuclear technology.

He says: “I was surprised to be honest, when the AUKUS announcement was first made by the Morrison Government and of course with the recent announcements […] just how accepting and supportive the electorate has been of the use of nuclear technologies in the propulsion of our submarine fleet.”

“From a South Australian perspective, the reality [is] that that will mean work on the installation of the nuclear reactor component of submarines taking place at Osborne in suburban Adelaide moving forward. So I think there is a degree of maturity and understanding attached to these debates, but obviously there are lots of safeguards that need to be attached to any nuclear consideration”.

“Way back in my first speech, [I] was clear that I thought nuclear technology should be on the table with how we tackle some of the challenges of our time and how much has happened in the intervening sixteen years. The affordability and growth of renewable energies has changed dramatically and changed the energy landscape dramatically in that time.”

“I don’t think it makes sense per se to just have a ban on nuclear technologies.”

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