Topics: Kevin Rudd appointment to US Ambassador; Foreign Minister visit to China; Australia-China relations;

05:10PM AEDT
20 December 2022


Luke Grant:  The Shadow Foreign Minister is Senator Simon Birmingham, who joins me this afternoon. Senator, thanks for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon, Luke. Good to be with you.


Luke Grant: Nice to talk to you, too. Simon what do you make of it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Prime Minister Albanese has clearly chosen a friend and confidant and former parliamentary and ministerial colleague and someone who Mr. Albanese obviously has faith and confidence in. And so, we all need former Prime Minister Rudd now to live up to that in terms of the job he’s been given. It’s an incredibly sensitive job at a very delicate time and so he has a big task ahead of him.


Luke Grant: Going to be able to butt out of the local politics, as Joe Hockey suggested, is essential in this role, he hasn’t been able to butt out of what happens here or anywhere has he?


Simon Birmingham: Mr. Rudd’s had a lot to say over recent years about every government, political figure and major media organisation seemingly around the Western world and probably beyond. So there’s a lot of opinions on the record there. Obviously, this job requires diplomacy and deft handling of different difficult issues. We need somebody who is going to be able to show a real sense of care in the way in which they handle very sensitive security issues. And if you think about the AUKUS partnership, which is so critical to our national security. And it needs somebody who is going to provide it with unqualified support and attention to deliver the outcomes that we require.


Luke Grant: Look, we’ve had it- I spoke to Joe Hockey earlier and Arthur Sinodinos, the current ambassador, and they all seem to do a reasonably fair job. I think Joe Hockey’s thought of fondly when he was ambassador, he was most effective. At the end of the day I’m not opposed to a politician taking these roles, given what they’re exposed to and their parliamentary lives and their experience at dealing with sensitive matters. I don’t have an issue, do you, that a politician would leave the parliament one day, become an ambassador? That’s probably a good call, isn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: I think it is absolutely a good call in terms of the theory there Luke, that in Washington the need for Australia to have an ambassador who can open doors in the White House talk directly to administration officials, people across the Congress, not just to deal at a bureaucratic level, but deal effectively at a political level is essential. And for those they are dealing with in Washington to have confidence that that person has the ear of the Australian Government of the day. Joe Hockey did an amazing job, particularly during the Trump administration, ensuring that Australia was exempt from some of the punitive tariffs on steel and aluminium that the Trump administration imposed on every other country in the world. Arthur Sinodinos likewise was there to help navigate and secure the AUKUS agreement in the initial conception and to make sure that we met and those security ties as far as possible. And he’s managed to navigate the transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration very successfully, and of course to navigate changes in government here in Australia as well. So, this is an important role, it’s a the role that is one where there’s a big role for people with political skills as well as diplomatic skills. But of course it also needs the person occupying it to know that the country they serve is bigger than them. The government they serve is bigger than them and that they are there to deliver for our national interests according to the priorities of the government of the day.


Luke Grant: So, it’s a fair to say the Opposition supports the appointment of Kevin Rudd to this role?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, we will judge him on performance and accept this is the Prime Minister’s pick and call. He is Mr. Albanese has decided that he has faith in Mr. Rudd to do the job and we all need for Australia’s interests to see Mr. Rudd live up to that faith that Anthony Albanese has put into him and that he can put the national interest and government policies and direction ahead of any personal views that he may have expressed so loudly over recent times.


Luke Grant: Yeah, a couple of quick ones. The recent trip by you and Senator Wong and one or two others into the Pacific. As someone that observes politics, because I’m a political nerd and I find it so fascinating, I thought that was a really important and I don’t want to say line in the sand- but really important show of political solidarity with our Pacific neighbours. The fact that there were two from the opposition and two from government, I imagine it felt like that when you were in the countries you visited. Did it?


Simon Birmingham: It was a really useful and beneficial trip, Luke. It is something that Julie Bishop had done when she was Foreign Minister and Penny Wong was then shadow foreign minister. So, it was not unprecedented obviously COVID put paid to such visits in the Pacific island nation, but to reinstate it was beneficial. The three different countries we visited, all of them would declare that the power of Penny Wong and myself, with Michael McCormack and Pat Conroy being there to speak on behalf of Australia with one voice and in solidarity as partners of other Pacific Island nations was powerful and beneficial. And I do acknowledge the Government for doing so and I think that together we managed to put a very strong positive from Australia’s perspective to those nations.


Luke Grant: Yeah, I agree. And how do we assess Penny Wong’s visit to China? She’s on her on her way there. What do you want to see come of it?


Simon Birmingham: This will now be the third meeting between Penny Wong and her Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and of course comes after Prime Minister Albanese and President Xi met in Bali as well. So, this is now the time for the initial niceties to give way to outcomes and to see real progress. That progress is required across a number of fronts. The removal of the unfair and unwarranted trade sanctions against Australia, the release of Australians who have been unfairly detained and treated without appropriate transparency in China. We need also to seek progress in terms of regional security and cyber security, where there are a number of areas of concern and enforcement should be up front and raising other points of concern in matters of human rights and the like too.


Luke Grant: Yeah, I know you couldn’t get a phone call returned and it seems now, obviously, Penny Wong gets the phone call returned. They’ve handled the Chinese relationship reasonably well, the new government, haven’t they?


Simon Birmingham: Well they benefit from being a new government. We had to take very difficult decisions in terms of strengthening Australia’s foreign investment rules, putting in place protections for critical infrastructure, making the decision around Huawei’s participation in telecommunications network, new foreign interference laws. All of these things were tensions in the relationship at the time we implemented them, but they were necessary for our long-term national interests in the country. The new government has done the right thing by standing by all of the policy decisions that we took to government. Of course, there’s also been a change from China, the wolf warrior type diplomacy they were deploying not just in Australia but across many other nations now a bit more engagement. And we saw that decision in sitting down with Joe Biden for 3 hours during the recent summit. I welcome the fact that this dialogue is happening. It was always counterproductive for China to refuse to have discussions and dialogue. The best way to work through differences and advance areas of mutual cooperation is to keep the lines of communication open and to be able to talk. So, China coming back to the table is a good thing. But as I say, now is the time for talks to start to progress to action. And that’s what I hope and I know that many parts of Australian industry hope to see from these discussions that Minister Wong is undertaking.


Luke Grant: Senator Simon Birmingham, the Shadow Foreign Minister. Merry Christmas. Simon, thanks so much for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks Luke and to you and all of you. May it be a good one.