12 August 2015

Interview with Peter Van Onselen, Sky News, Canberra


SUBJECTS: Same sex marriage, Competition review (Section 46)


Let’s go to Bruce Billson now, the Small Business Minister, thank you very much for joining us and taking away the thunder of Andrew Robb on the Business Channel.


Well, it is a tough call for your viewers Peter, but I guess that is the option of being on Sky. You have got multiple channels for multiple bits of information and they do say politics is show biz for ugly people so you can check out a different face if mine is not to your liking.


There you go. Alright the danger for you of course is you will get off and then you will get a call from the PMO saying what are you doing creating out Andrew Robb’s messaging? But we will leave that for you in the aftermath of this interview.

First question on what happened yesterday. We will go through some of the ins and outs of what I understand to have happened inside the Coalition Party Room, including your position on this.

But, can you first just explain to me why it is an acceptable thing, the number of young Australians who are homosexual that will commit suicide between now and when the government finally gets its act together to have a plebiscite on this issue.


Any self-harm is a tragedy Peter, and I hope for young men and women, or even people that are more mature age, they find love and commitment and a durable relationship that will help them travel through dark times.

I would hate to think that is the frame through which this important discussion is taking place. Many influences in people’s lives and finding love is a very important one.

That is not really what this discussion is about.

It is about how, we as a nation and as a society, recognise and properly respect same sex relationships whilst at the same time recognising that our heritage, many in our community for cultural, for religious, for a range of reasons understand marriage to be something that is enshrined in the current law.

We need to find space to accommodate both points of view and support people to find love and durable, committed relationships that sustain them and bring them joy in their lives.


Now, in the joint party room, you, as I understand it, wanted a conscience vote, but you were opposed to the issue of same sex marriage – from the speech that you gave, described as passionate to me, by some of your colleagues.

Why do the majority, do you think, of Liberals, not just if you bring the Nationals into the mix, why do you think a majority of Liberals were not interested in a conscience vote despite the pleadings of yourself and others?


I guess it is a range of issues and I think if we started from a fresh, if there was no history to this subject, I suspect it would be handled quite differently, Peter. But there is a history and we cannot get away from that.

When the legislation to clarify and reiterate the traditional concept of marriage passed the Coalition’s Party Room and then the parliament, without much opposition, back in I think ’04, if I remember correctly; it became a policy position.

I know in my own circumstances, and if I could speak specifically about that for a moment, I do all of those community meetings leading up to elections. I am asked questions, I am held to account for the answers I give.

My answer has been, for some years and even at the most recent election, respect and a continuation of the current definition, while we work to find some proper legislatively embraced public recognition between family and friends of same sex relationships.

For years, that was thought to be a thoughtful approach to recognise strongly held views that are diametrically opposed and that have seen us get to a point now where it is a binary discussion. It is either, this group wins and the other group feels disenfranchised or vice versa.

Now, I am not sure that is the solution for the future, we need to find some other strategy to respect and value and recognise in a way that is responsive to people’s personal ambitions, sense of identity and sense of who they are, their relationships that they choose to engage in.


In his media conference, the Prime Minister all but committed to some form of plebiscite by the sounds of it in the next parliamentary term. Did he raise that in the joint party room meeting?

I know others did, I know Joe Hockey did, I know Julie Bishop did, I know others did. Other senior members of the side, if you like, but did the Prime Minister raise that as something he was going to then suggest?


Peter I will not give you a chapter and verse in all the goings on. I know you have been well briefed by others, but you also know that is not my form. What I can say is, that amongst the contributions, and well argued, and really thoughtful contributions, it was raised as a possible option.

Recognising, that even amongst people of shared values and principles that bring us together in the party room, you can have deeply held conviction driven, fundamental values shaping points of view that are not all compatible with each other, even in that room.

The view was, that then makes it difficult for us as law makers, or as representatives, bringing the perspectives of our community into the parliament to resolve what is such a foundational issue about the way we organise our society.

And the idea was that if we were going to shepherd in a new approach to concepts as fundamental as relationships between adults, then let it be chaperoned by the people themselves.

And that was the context within which it was raised.


Can I just get your understanding of what the election pledge was at the last election? I do know because I saw from the doorstop that the Prime Minister did in Adelaide on the 3rd of September, that he did commit to a joint Coalition Party Room discussion on this issue, so that was within the spectre of what he committed to.

But, there seems to be some contestation amongst your colleagues about whether or not the commitment was that there would be that discussion, whichever way it went.

Whether it allowed a conscience vote immediately, whatever the outcome of it; versus that there was a commitment for the entirety of this term of parliament, there would be a binding vote and a party room discussion would only be about what would happen thereafter.

Which of those is your understanding was the election commitment?


From my point of view, it was pretty clear, and one that I conveyed and then made personal commitments about within my own electorate and I try and honour my undertakings Peter, otherwise you would be going off like a bag of prawns in the sun if I did not honour those undertakings.

So those undertakings were to maintain the current definition of marriage, but if a private members bill emerged in the life of this parliament, the party room would consider it as it does in the ordinary course of events.

That did not commit to a change of position, that did not commit to any voting profile or modality, or the way in which colleagues would conduct themselves. That was a statement of what we do…


But your conservative colleagues do not agree with that…


…and to the Prime Minister’s credit…


…Bruce Billson, your conservative colleagues argue that that is actually not accurate. They say that there was a firm commitment for the entirety of this term and that the most that the joint party room was eligible to consider without breaking a promise was what to do for the next parliamentary term.

You reject that though?


No, I choose my words carefully, Peter. In that the commitment that we went to the election with was to preserve the definition as it currently stands.

But, in the event that a private members bill came forward, the party room would have the opportunity to consider it. It did not go any further into say, and therefore, X, Y and Z might occur.

It was recognising that in the ordinary course of events, the party room would consider a private members bill. For me I am maintaining my undertakings for the entire period of this term.

I have to be honest with you Peter, I have been working to try and find a solution that does not see a group within our community feeling disenfranchised and alienated and not properly respected for their values, their opinions and the kinds of relationships they choose to enter into.


Let me just jump in…


Just let me finish. The idea of then resolving that by creating an alienation and a disenfranchisement somewhere else is not really a durable strategy.

So I have been trying to find a way forward that respects deeply held, perfectly respectable and vigorously advocated points of view that currently see a binary debate, either this argument wins or that argument wins.

We need to do better than that.


Let me just jump in Bruce Billson, sorry, we are going to come back to you.

[cuts to Malcolm Turnbull doorstop]


Alright, that was Malcolm Turnbull, there. Apologies to Bruce Billson, he is still standing by, or I hope he is. Let’s bring him back. Sorry about that Bruce Billson. Let me get your reaction to that.

You would have heard what Malcolm Turnbull had to say. He does not sound like much of a fan of the idea of the plebiscite, which the Prime Minster put forward.


I am not here to give a commentary on Malcolm’s press conference. I took the opportunity to check out how my Small Business Tax Cut Bill was going in the House of Representatives.

I caught some of it though and Malcolm is reflecting where we got to last night. We are clear on our position in terms of what is happening with private members bills right now and we have work to do about formulating a position for the next election.

There is another option though, Peter, and it is something that I would encourage you and your viewers to consider. There is scope for the differing points of view to come together and try and find some common ground.

It is mutually respectful, that understands there is deep personal convictions at play on both sides of the argument and seeing one side of the argument feel like they win and the other side feeling like they have not is not a durable strategy.


What could precipitate that? You must have some ideas in that respect, you have mentioned this before.


Yeah, I have and for some years. To be honest with you, a position that many in same sex relationships found quite an acceptable strategy and that was to leave the law the way it is now and create a committed life partnership description of same sex relationships that could be formally recognised and celebrated in front of family and friends and captured in the current law.

For many that I spoke with, that seemed to be quite an attractive and sensible and collegiate way forward that was respecting of all the relationship choices people make.

But I must say, as the campaign is rolled out, that view has seen some people label me as a bigot and a homophobic, which is quite bizarre as you know Peter, I have many faults but those two are not some of them.


…no I would not…


But there is that scope for that. To actually have that conversation to recognise that for centuries people have had a concept of what marriage means and what it means for them in a deeply personal way and we now have a reasonable proposition being put forward about some formal mechanism to recognise same sex relationships.

The contest now is over terminology. Maybe there is a way forward that is respectful of all strongly held views by deeply committed and decent people who happen to have a completely different take on this.


We have gone over time Bruce Billson. We were really interrupted by Malcolm Turnbull. But I do have to ask you…


We cannot talk about tax cuts for small business…


Well, I had to ask you one question on small…


…competition law…Peter!


I have to ask you one question in fairness on small business, but not about those. I wanted to ask you about this controversial measure which would favour small business over big business.

Peter Costello is being critical of it, the Business Council of Australia have been critical of it. What is your answer to that?


I would invite critics to actually look at what is proposed. They will see this is not about advantaging one part of the economy over another, this is about getting our laws right so a specific provision that people talk about, a misuse of market power provision actually works.

We are in an economy where we have got many duopolies and oligarchies in a range of different economic sectors and we rely on this misuse of market power provision to make sure dominant businesses do not behave in an anticompetitive way that harms the economy.

We have got a law that does not actually achieve that. The Harper Panel went through 1,000 submissions, a year of consultation. They have come up with a workable, modest, moderate solution that embraces current concepts in other sections of the competition law.

It really warrants careful consideration. Not this sort of shrillness that seems to reflect a debate that was 20 years ago. We have got different court decisions; we need to make the law work.

That is what the Harper Review has recommended and I think there is a case for change.


Alright, we will come back to that in more detail at another time, obviously, way laden with other issues today. Bruce Billson, appreciate your company as well as your patience through the Turnbull break-in. Thanks very much.


Thanks Peter.