Topics: Australia-China relationship; Mr Albanese erroneous comments on Taiwan entering CPTPP; Professor Sean Turnell; Myanmar; Actions to support women & girls of Iran; national anti-corruption commission legislation; industrial relations reforms to hurt thousands of small businesses; Labor has no plan to fix gas & energy crisis; Voice to Parliament debate;

09:10AM AEDT
20 November 2022


David Speers: Simon Birmingham, welcome to the program.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David. Good to be with you.


David Speers: So the diplomatic freeze with China is now over. We heard Xi Jinping there citing the mature approach of the Albanese Government. Is that how you see it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, David, I welcome very much the fact that this meeting has occurred. I welcome it on a couple of scores. Importantly, the previous governments under Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison had to make many necessary but difficult decisions on foreign investment, on protection of critical infrastructure, in safeguarding our democracy, in handling sensitive telecommunications decisions such as the role of Huawei. These were difficult decisions and they were always going to cause difficulty in relation to our relationship and engagement with China. But the conduct of these meetings demonstrates that China’s attempts in terms of diplomatic isolation of Australia, the attempted economic coercion through the unfair trade sanctions have not been yielded to. They’ve not seen any change in Australian policy. And I welcome the fact that the Labor Government has maintained those policy settings of the Coalition and has maintained a recognition that the strategic challenges of the environment we’re in have not changed.


David Speers: But does it also help that the Prime Minister is not talking about the need to prepare for war, that it’s inevitable we’d join a conflict over Taiwan, not constantly comparing this situation to the 1930s?


Simon Birmingham: Well, David, it’s important that we maintain a consistency in policy and a consistency where possible in language as well. But that language has to be one that that reflects the reality of the challenging circumstances we face-


David Speers: But does it help if the rhetoric is dialled down is my question.


Simon Birmingham: Well this government will have difficult times to come, no doubt. There is an inevitability that the challenges the previous government faced will be repeated at different junctures in the future. It’s still early days for the Labor Government and we’ll see how they handle those challenges when issues in relation to the South China Sea come-


David Speers: But does it help that the war talks dial down?


Simon Birmingham: David, I think it’s important that we maintain a position in terms of our language and our approach to the region that seeks to be as engaging as possible with all partners in the region, as respectful as possible. But also firm in terms of Australia’s national interest and where necessary, calling out egregious breaches by others. Be that in relation to activities such as in the South China Sea or human rights matters, and I note that in that regard, since the election of the Albanese Government, we’ve had the UN report on the Xinjiang region released. They joined in the condemnation with other nations, but they haven’t joined in action like other nations. In terms of the use of Magnitsky style sanctions and as a Coalition we would offer bipartisan support for them to do that.


David Speers: Just on that. So that’s interesting. You want the government to impose Magnitsky style sanctions on officials in China?


Simon Birmingham: Following the release of that UN report back in September, I wrote to Penny Wong offering bipartisan support in that regard. She had previously criticised the previous government for not acting in concert with other nations. And so I wanted to make sure that given those new sanctions laws were passed late in the term of the previous government, that we would give that bipartisan support if the new government chose to use those sanctions.


David Speers: All right. I’ll come to some other sanctions questions in a moment elsewhere. But that’s interesting. Let me just ask you about Taiwan. Do you think Australia should be supporting Taiwan’s entry to the CPTPP trade pact?


Simon Birmingham: I think we should judge it on its merits. Anthony Albanese’s answer that he gave to a question the other day was clearly wrong and erroneous. He sought to say that it wasn’t wrong, but his claim that Taiwan could not join because it is not a nation was wrong.


David Speers: Well, he didn’t say they could not join. He just noted the fact that they are not recognised as a nation.


Simon Birmingham: Well, he seemed to use that as a justification for why they couldn’t join or shouldn’t be allowed to join, David. The reality is that Taiwan is a fully fledged member of the World Trade Organisation. So too is Hong Kong, with whom Australia has a free trade agreement. So, any consideration of Taiwan joining the CPTPP should be on the basis of assessing how we maintain unity amongst the members of the TPP, but crucially, whether Taiwan can live up to the high ambitions of the TPP. The merits of the argument there, it is an ambitious trade agreement. It has particular terms in relation to, for example, state owned enterprises and how they operate, as well as the management of data flows, transfer and storage. These set a very high standard for a trade agreement and they ought to be judged on that and working cooperatively with all members of the TPP as to whether if they can meet those standards, then they can join.


David Speers: Should Taiwan be recognised as a nation state?


Simon Birmingham: No, David, there’s no change in relation to the bipartisanship of Australia’s position there, recognising China’s position in relation to one China, but not expecting and wishing to see any change to the status quo undertaken in any unilateral way.


David Speers: What about the position on strategic ambiguity, what we might do in the event of any conflict over Taiwan? What’s your view on that?


Simon Birmingham: David, my view is that we should assess all of these matters carefully as things unfold and develop, but we should be prepared for any eventuality. And so we’ll be looking carefully and closely at the Defence Strategic Review when it is released early next year. How that can help to enhance Australia’s preparedness for any and all eventualities in terms of the protection of our nation and the security of our region.


David Speers: During the nine years of the Coalition government. There was no minister visiting, no minister visited Taiwan. Your colleague, the Shadow Defence Minister Andrew Hastie, when he was on this program, said he’d consider visiting. Would you?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I did visit many years ago now and there was-


David Speers: Not as a minister though.


Simon Birmingham: That not as a minister. There were some discussions around a possible visit just prior to COVID occurring. Obviously COVID put paid to all visits as it did to meetings such as the summits we’ve seen occurring face to face for the last couple of years. But I would certainly be open to seeing a minister visit. And that will be a matter for the now government to consider.


David Speers: So even though you guys didn’t do it, you would like to see a Labor minister visit?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I would be open to seeing that occur. Obviously, it’s got to occur in the right and constructive way as to who goes and when they go.


David Speers: The Australian economist Sean Turnell is back home after 650 days behind bars in Myanmar. Was the Foreign Minister, Penny Wong right, do you think, to directly engage with the military regime there to secure his release?


Simon Birmingham: It’s been right to see a consistency of effort in relation to Professor Turnell, who we warmly welcome and our very relieved to see him back in Australia. But a consistency of effort right throughout both the previous government and this government. Marise Payne and Penny Wong both worked hard with regional counterparts and others-


David Speers: Penny Wong directly engaged the regime. Marise Payne as far as I’m aware, did not. Do you think it was the right call?


Simon Birmingham: Well, as long as Australia’s position in relation to the other human rights abuses, the thousands of individuals who are still detained in Myanmar remains consistent. As long as those views continue to be put very, very strongly and as long as we look for how we can enhance pressure on the Myanmar regime to better respect human rights and to see a return to genuine democracy, not sham elections, as many fear will occur next year. These are important considerations, and the government has to be consistent in all of its engagement.


David Speers: Should Australia now impose sanctions on Myanmar?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Australia should be looking for how we work with regional partners to increase pressure on Myanmar, and sanctions should be on the table as part of that.


David Speers: So the Morrison government didn’t impose sanctions on Myanmar. Why not?


Simon Birmingham: Again, David, part of that consideration should be the fact that we’ve seen late in the piece of the previous government, the passage of those new Magnitsky style sanctions laws that do give further options to government as to how they target and how they direct sanctions, but also the timing in terms of the opportunity to work with regional partners, where we’ve seen that sadly, Myanmar, having signed on to ASEAN’s five point plan, which we put great store in previously, but that has not seen any progress. And so there need to be alternative actions pursued as a result of the failure of that process.


David Speers: But you guys, you guys didn’t do it in government. But again, you’re saying Labor should at least consider it.


Simon Birmingham: Well, times have moved on there, David. As I said, in government, we were lending great support to working with the other ASEAN nations. Their five point plan was an important attempt of the region to try to get progress in Myanmar. Sadly, Myanmar thumbed its nose not only at people in its own country, and the rest of the world, but also at its ASEAN partners. And so new further efforts are necessary given the failure of that process.


David Speers: Even though they’ve just done what we’ve asked for and released, Sean Turnell. You think we should be slapping sanctions on them because of the human rights abuses that are going on there?


Simon Birmingham: We cannot turn a blind eye to the thousands of other individuals who are detained in Myanmar, to the abuses occurring across the country, to the oppression of minorities that are happening, to the suppression of democracy, and to the fact that it would appear they are preparing to undertake a sham election next year as an entree to try to get themselves back into the international acceptance. Well, international acceptance should not occur off the back of a sham election, should not occur when we see such extensive human rights abuses occurring.


David Speers: What about Iran? The Coalition is also calling on the government to impose sanctions on Iran over its treatment of women. What sort of sanctions?


Simon Birmingham: Well, targeted sanctions on the leadership of Iran, of the Revolutionary Guard. These are the types of measures that that many other nations have applied. Australia is a long way behind like-minded countries and comparable nations when it comes to action in relation to Iran. Since the murder of Mahsa Amini. We’ve seen many other lives lost, but we’ve also seen enormous courage from Iranian civilians coming out onto the streets in their thousands, making clear that they are standing firm in support of the rights, particularly of women and girls. And there is a sense that this could be a moment of time in relation to Iran. We won’t know that for sure until things unfold. But Australia should be leaning in to support those brave souls in Iran and to stand consistent with other nations.


David Speers: So to be clear on that. Are you saying that that Magnitsky style approach for senior figures in Iran or are you saying we should go a whole lot further and stop selling wheat and wool and meat to Iran?


Simon Birmingham: Many of the Iranian Australians that I’ve engaged with have asked not for, and they’ve expressly said they don’t want sanctions that could hurt the Iranian people in terms of those economic sanctions. But they do believe that there are many cases for targeted individual sanctions to be applied, as we’ve done in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And both the previous Coalition government and the Labor Government have put in place further sanctions there. It’s only fit and proper that we should act in terms of support for the movement that’s occurring in Iran. That looks like it could, as I say, be a moment in time and therefore Australia shouldn’t be way behind like minded countries. We should be working in acting in concert with them.


David Speers: Let me turn to some domestic issues, the resumption of Parliament tomorrow in your role as the Opposition Leader in the Senate. Just a few things. Will you support the bill to establish a national anti-corruption commission?


Simon Birmingham: We’re waiting for the parliamentary committee processes to conclude and to see precisely what type of amendments come through those. I hope and trust that they will have considered the evidence from the Law Council of Australia, the Bar Association here in my home state of South Australia and others that have argued around ways in which the anti-corruption commission can be improved in terms of the model presented, and that with those types of amendments that hopefully we can offer bipartisan support for its passage.


David Speers: The industrial relations reforms you’re not supporting. If not, what do you think should be done to get wages moving or are you satisfied with where wages are at?


Simon Birmingham: David, the importance of getting wages moving is one that we share, but this is not a bill that will get wages moving-


David Speers: So what would?


Simon Birmingham: – it will get unemployment moving. It’s a bill also that is not consistent with the policies the Labor Party took to the last election. So we have a Labor Government that didn’t tell Australians in advance of these policies, certainly didn’t tell Australian small businesses the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of small businesses who will be adversely affected by these policies that they are going to bring them in and are rushing them-


David Speers: I know so how would you get wages going?


Simon Birmingham: -through the Parliament. We’ve been very clear all along that you have to maintain economic strength to get wages moving.


David Speers: What does that mean?


Simon Birmingham: This is an economy growing as strongly as possible, keeping unemployment as low as possible. Those are the things that our government managed to achieve with strong economic growth in our last year in office. With unemployment down to 50 year lows, creating the conditions for economic growth help to drive productive wages growth-


David Speers: Not much wage growth. That was the problem that you guys didn’t achieve much wage growth.


Simon Birmingham: Well, this, unfortunately, from the Labor Party is a bill that is going to only put pressure on businesses, only create an environment for more strike action, for lower productivity and for job losses. They’re not things that are going to provide for sustainable wages growth into the future, even if it essentially is legislation that pushes wages in some sectors. It’s also going to push unemployment up in many sectors.


David Speers: On energy prices. Can you just clarify, are you opposed to any higher taxes on the windfall profits of gas companies?


Simon Birmingham: David, we don’t think that simply slugging a tax in relation to the companies is going to do anything for the energy prices of Australians. You’ve got to fix supply and the gas market to provide for genuine outcomes there. And those types of taxes will actually only hurt you in the longer term because they’ll act as an investment disincentive and mean you’ve got less supply for the future.


David Speers: But if it’s a tax on the windfall profit that could then that revenue could then be used to do something about the prices, presumably?


Simon Birmingham: And if you all go down that sort of path, as I said, you will also create a disincentive for investment, which means you’ll only exacerbate and continue the supply problem into the future. So it would be a counterproductive measure in terms of tackling the root cause of the problems there.


David Speers: So just let them pocket the windfall, let them pocket the windfall profits from these resources.


Simon Birmingham: David, Let the government come up with a policy that’s actually going to work.


David Speers: You’ve just said you’re opposed to any tax, right?


Simon Birmingham: So, David, I’ve been clear that I think it would be a counterproductive measure because it would actually hurt supply in the future. So this government had five-six months leading up to their budget. They didn’t do anything in the budget. They’ve now had close to a month since the budget. They haven’t managed to come up with a policy since the budget either. There’s clearly enormous internal division in the Government, as some and many, it seems, would agree with the type of proposition I’ve put that some of these floated measures around taxes or price caps or the like will only act as a disincentive to investment and in doing so mean you prolong supply challenges. The Government should reverse some of their budget decisions that actually will make it harder to bring more supply into the marketplace. And they should be working more constructively with industry rather than the type of excessive rhetoric we’ve seen from some ministers that seems to suggest they want to be at war with industry.


David Speers: Just finally, on the Voice to Parliament. You’re the leading moderate in the Liberal Party now. Do you support an Indigenous voice being enshrined in the Constitution?


Simon Birmingham: David, I strongly support recognition and have done for many years. And of course the debate around the Voice has come along subsequent to early efforts to try to achieve Indigenous recognition when it comes to the model for the Voice. I do think Australians deserve to see more detail and have more answers about how it will work, how it will be constituted and how it will make a difference. I understand the very passionate views by those who argue for the Voice and I don’t wish to see them disrespected in any way. But I also acknowledge that there are strong Indigenous views of doubt and question about whether the Voice will be actually effective in achieving any substantial change on the ground in relation-


David Speers: So, you seriously haven’t made up your mind after all the debate on this?


Simon Birmingham: David, we’re going to be asked to support a constitutional change for a model that is as yet undefined by the government in relation to that model. It’s not unreasonable to want to see the detail of the model.


David Speers: All right, Simon Birmingham, thanks very much for your time this morning.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.