Topic:  Australia-US climate compact; Quad; PM invitation to China; Trade sanctions; Australians detained in China; JobSeeker; PRRT; 12 months on from federal election; Coalition policy; Voice to Parliament; Fadden by-election;  

09:15AM AEST
Sunday, 21 May 2023


David Speers: Simon Birmingham, welcome to the program.


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


David Speers: So, the two leaders have signed this new climate compact. They’ve elevated the issue to what they’re calling a central pillar of the alliance. Do you agree climate change is now an essential element of the US alliance?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it is an essential issue for us to work cooperatively with our partner nations on. This compact, this agreement is welcome and it is complementary with agreements that Australia previously signed under the Coalition government. With Germany, with Japan, Singapore or the United Kingdom, where we established green economy agreements and cooperative arrangements to be able to ensure that the $22 billion that we put in place for clean energy investment and transition of Australia’s economy to net zero was done in concert with the types of countries who are going to be essential to help us get low-cost technological transformation. And that is what the United States, under President Biden and through his Inflation Reduction Act is in particular doing. Investing significantly in lower cost technologies to help enable the transition to net zero. And it’s critical for Australia to be part of that journey as we are already with a number of other nations through such cooperative arrangements.


David Speers: Makes it a bit harder for you, doesn’t it, to consider watering down Australia’s climate targets?


Simon Birmingham: Well, David, I wouldn’t want to see Australia water down our climate targets.


David Speers: So you support the climate targets?


Simon Birmingham: David, the challenge of getting to net zero is going to be a difficult one for all the countries of the world. It will take maximum cooperation between us and it does entail all of us making sure that we work through the different means of technological investment to get the types of outcomes that can ensure change, not just in our energy markets, but critically in terms of industrial emissions, transport emissions, agricultural emissions. There are a range of different sectors of all of our economies that need that type of investment and technological change to make net zero an actual reality.


David Speers: Okay. But we have a climate target legislated. The Libs didn’t vote for it and I haven’t heard this before, but you just said you don’t want that watered down. You do support Australia’s climate targets, now?


Simon Birmingham: David, I don’t want to see Australia take backward steps in terms of our emissions targets. Now of course under the Paris Agreement there are five yearly steps for us to take in terms of updating those targets. Whoever is in government at each point in time will have to assess what is going to be feasible in terms of those five yearly updates under the Paris Agreement and do so in consideration of how that technology is evolving, what the impacts on Australian jobs and industry will be and what progress is being made around the rest of the world. But partnerships like this one will be important to helping to ensure that we do make that type of progress.


David Speers: That’s interesting. The Quad meeting, it went ahead last night. How important is this grouping and what do you envisage for its future?


Simon Birmingham: The Quad is important. It brings together four Indo-Pacific, democratic maritime powers and in doing so, four countries who can speak with common values to our region about the type of region we wish to see. As you were highlighting before, a region that is indeed open and secure, peaceful and prosperous, one in which countries aren’t forced to make a choice but feel empowered in their own sovereignty. It’s an ability to cooperate across a range of different spheres in in relation to supporting a rules-based order that has enabled prosperity and lifting people out of poverty across our region over a number of decades now, right across South East Asia and across the subcontinent into India and elsewhere. We have seen a massive change in terms of lifestyle and living standards, underpinned largely by open trade, growing exchange of goods, growing exchange of technology and commerce around the region, and a rules-based order that has helped to transform the lives of hundreds of millions. And that’s why it’s so important we work together to preserve that.


David Speers: On China, the Prime Minister has now been invited to visit Beijing. Do you think he should go before all of the trade sanctions are lifted?


Simon Birmingham: I think Australia does deserve to have absolute clarity that these trade sanctions are going to be lifted and that that clarity should be there before the Prime Minister entertains a formal state visit to Beijing. And why? Well, because China is acting very clearly in breach of its commitments to Australia. China’s acting in breach of its commitments under the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. It’s acting in breach of commitments it’s given in a number of regional trade compacts with Australia, and it’s acting in breach of its commitments to the World Trade Organisation. Now it’s clear China did not want that independent global umpire, the World Trade Organisation, to hand down findings against it, which is why it negotiated the process in relation to the barley dispute that was initiated with China-


David Speers: Well, they still haven’t lifted those barley tariffs, have they?


Simon Birmingham: They have not lifted them and we should expect them to be lifted completely, as we should the tariffs on our wine industry. And we should expect nothing less than China to adhere to the terms it entered into under the China-Australia free trade agreement-


David Speers: Just to be clear, you’re saying the PM shouldn’t go until all that’s happened?


Simon Birmingham: We’ve had lots of good steps in terms of dialogue. It was counterproductive of China to refuse to have ministerial level dialogue with Australia, and as an opposition we have given absolute bipartisan support to the Albanese Government to re-enter into dialogue with China. And it’s good that the Prime Minister’s had that dialogue, as has the Deputy Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Trade Minister and we’ve welcomed each of those. But there is a point where we should expect clear outcomes and that China should adhere to the terms of the China-Australia FTA without seeking concession or conditions from Australia other than that we equally adhere to those terms, as we have been a good partner in doing so.


David Speers: What about the detention of Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun, the two Australian citizens? Should that be cleared up? Should they even be released before the PM goes, or is that a separate matter in your mind?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it is obviously a different matter, but still a very, very important and significant matter. It is a matter that I know the Prime Minister and every official, as in the previous government, raises at every opportunity as they should, and we should be expecting to see progress in relation to that. There are obviously China’s own legal processes, but the unfair detention, the lack of transparency in relation to those detained Australians is completely unacceptable and we should continue to seize every opportunity to prosecute that case.


David Speers: Let’s turn to a couple of domestic matters. It’s nearly two weeks now since the budget. Two weeks since the increase in JobSeeker was proposed by the government. Have you worked out whether you support an increase in JobSeeker yet?


Simon Birmingham: We’ll go through our normal processes once we see the legislation for this. But Peter Dutton has proposed an important alternative, an alternative that would help Australians who are willing to and looking to engage in the workforce. The reality is across the Australian economy we do face workforce shortages at present. Many, many employers are still looking for people to do extra hours to take on different shifts and the proposal we’ve put in place to help job seekers keep more of what they earn is a valuable one that economists have said would actually put some downward pressure on inflation because it would increase capacity across the economy.


David Speers: Have you worked out the cost of that proposal yet?


Simon Birmingham: Well, as has been indicated, that’s been worked through with the Parliamentary Budget Office in terms of the final costings arrangements.


David Speers: So, did you sign off on a on a policy that you don’t know the cost of?


Simon Birmingham: We’ve outlined an alternative at this stage, David. We are not at an election and we’re not about to form government in the next two years. We will take our fully costed policies to the next election. But in terms of in the couple of days after the Labor Party handed down its budget we outlined-


David Speers: Oppositions don’t need to cost policies. Is that what you’re saying?


Simon Birmingham: No, I just said we will take fully costed policies to the next election. That’s exactly what I said and that is what we will do. But in terms of the two days after the budget was handed down, we put forward an alternative, an alternative that it’s clear under anybody’s analysis will cost less than what the Government’s proposal is, but one that will help Australians to get into the workforce, making things better for employers, making things better for those Australians who take those extra hours when they’re on JobSeeker and putting a bit of downward pressure on inflation, which is so critical at this time to help all Australians.


David Speers: It’s also two weeks since the Government announced plans to change the petroleum resource rent tax to raise an extra $2.4 billion. The gas industry is broadly okay with it. Are you?


Simon Birmingham: Well, again, our concerns are primarily the fact that the government seems to have waged a continuous war on the gas sector an important export earner for Australia, an important revenue source and critical for our domestic industry. Now the PRRT has been subject, as you know, of a number of reviews and analysis, and in some ways these changes may be the least of the industry’s concerns relative to the other things the Government has done that creates investment risk around the PRRT. And so, again, when we see the detail of the legislation from the government, we will go through our proper processes, we’ll engage with industry thoroughly around that and come to a conclusion about our position in the Parliament. But we are concerned-


David Speers: Surely if the industry is okay with it, you’re not going to say no, are you?


Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s why we’ll sit down with industry and do our own analysis. Once we’ve seen that detail of the legislation, the Government’s made an announcement, but we need to obviously see that to come to a final position. But elsewhere we have grave concerns that the Government’s interventions in the gas market have hurt Australia’s standing in terms of international investors and in doing so jeopardise the affordability of energy in Australia and through that the job generation and elsewhere that comes from that very strong export industry.


David Speers: It’s 12 months today since the Coalition’s election defeat. You appeared on this program morning after the election, as I’m sure you recall.


Simon Birmingham: I do.


David Speers: You said the Liberal Party had lost professionals and women in particular. You said the party had to regroup to win them back. What has the party done since then to win back the professionals and the women that you were talking about?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the test for us will be at the next election in terms of taking forward a set of policies, a set of candidates and a campaign approach that does win back those cohorts of voters who we lost. And the work, of course, is underway in terms of policy development. We need to see outcomes in terms of candidate selection as well. And these are very important tasks for the party. It’s an ongoing task and it’s one that needs to reach a crescendo at that point of the next election to give voters the confidence that we heard messages from the last election. There will be different issues at play at the next election in terms of, of course, the pressures Australians are feeling in their household budgets, the areas of broken promises from the Albanese government in terms of where they promised lower electricity prices, real wages and other factors.


David Speers: Can I take you back to the other factors? No, I appreciate your lines of attack there, but can I just take you back to the question. What have you done in the first 12 months of this term to win back those groups?


Simon Birmingham: Well, importantly, policy work is taking place within the Coalition to make sure that we can present, I trust, compelling messages at the next election, and they need to be compelling around how it is we demonstrate our continued commitment economically. But also, as we started this interview, our commitment on matters such as climate change and how we do that in a way that demonstrates to people we are sincere about achieving net zero. The role that-.


David Speers: You voted against the climate targets. You voted against the safeguards mechanism. Do you think that helped?


Simon Birmingham: That is where our alternative policies have to be convincing and compelling for Australians, David. And that is that is the test that we will face at the next election. I’m very cognisant of-


David Speers: What does that mean? What does that mean? I mean, give us a sense because we haven’t seen anything in the first 12 months. Are you saying behind the scenes you’ve got some secret plan that’s going to wow us on the climate front?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it means that we will be outlining clear policies in the lead up to the next election. You wouldn’t expect that oppositions do that two years out from a scheduled election. You know full well that that is done in an orderly manner, much closer to an election time frame when they are fully developed, when they are fully costed and when they can be released cognisant of the circumstances we will all face at that time of the next election. The circumstances now are different to what they were 12 months ago. We’ve seen Australia go from having some of the lowest inflation rates among major developed economies to having, indeed amongst the highest inflation rates of major developed economies. We’ve got a government now that is forecasting lower growth and higher unemployment than had been previously forecast. So, we will face quite different circumstances to what we did 12 months ago. And there the challenges that we will have to confront in our policies.


David Speers: On the Indigenous Voice you’ve previously said you wanted to wait for the parliamentary committee to do its work on this before deciding which way you’ll go. They’ve now wrapped up their work, so what will you do? Support or oppose the Voice?


Simon Birmingham: David, I won’t be acting contrary to the party position on this, but I do urge the government to look, listen and think about the types of comments we’ve seen from Mick Gooda and others in recent days. We do see very clearly a view that is emerging that the approach the Government is taking is increasing the risk in relation to this referendum. I don’t think it is a good thing for Australia that we end up in a situation with a referendum likely to fail. It is far better if the Government goes back to the drawing board and indeed if the members of the working group and other Indigenous leaders think hard about the type of advice they’re hearing from the likes of Mick Gooda and give the government licence and room to move such that people could take a fresh look at this again and reconsider the way in which it is handled.


David Speers: There’s no sign they’re going to do that. So, if it goes forward as proposed, will you vote for it or against it?


Simon Birmingham: I said I’m not going to act contrary to our party position on it. David, But-


David Speers: What are you going to do? Are you going to vote for it or against it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, our party positions out there in terms of-.


David Speers: I know what that position is, that’s to vote no.


Simon Birmingham: In terms of not supporting change and I’m not going-.


David Speers: I’m just asking your position. What’s your position?


Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s as I said I’m not going to act contrary to that party position.


David Speers: You’ll vote, no?


Simon Birmingham: That’s the party position.


David Speers: So, you’ll vote, no?


Simon Birmingham: And I’m not going to act contrary to it.


David Speers: That means you’ll vote no.


Simon Birmingham: That is the party position, David, and I’m not going to act contrary to it.


David Speers: In terms of your own vote?


Simon Birmingham: And David, look, there are many issues Australia faces at present. This will be an important debate. I think it is unfortunate this debate has been mishandled by the Government in terms of getting to the position it is. There’s an opportunity for them to reconsider the way in which they put this to the people. And if that means it takes a little bit longer, that won’t be necessarily a bad thing in terms of trying to get this to a position where we could actually have a unifying moment as a nation.


David Speers: Final one, 12 months for Peter Dutton as Opposition Leader. We’ve seen one by-election defeat in Aston. You’ve got another by-election coming up in Fadden now, after Stuart Roberts resignation. Can the leader afford to lose two by-elections?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll put a strong campaign forward in Fadden. And I am confident that Peter and the whole team will be working hard in that by-election-


David Speers: It’s got to win it, right?


Simon Birmingham: -and off the back of the most recent budget, we do have a different set of circumstances in terms of very clearly being able to point to a government now that is projecting lower growth, higher unemployment, that real wages are in fact going backwards not forwards in breach of their promises


David Speers: But he’s got to win this by-election, Peter Dutton?


Simon Birmingham: Well we always want to win a by election. We want to make sure we win this one for sure. And the issues we’ll campaign on clearly the track record of the government, the broken promises of the Government. One year on from the election of the Albanese Government most Australians are feeling worse off, not better off. And that is a key factor in terms of how we will campaign and the approach we will take to hold them to account.


David Speers: Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, David. My pleasure.