Interview on ABC Afternoon Briefing with Stephanie Borys
Topics: Senator Marise Payne; PM to visit China;  

09:20AM AEST
15 September 2023


Stephanie Borys:  Well, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Simon Birmingham, has worked alongside Marise Payne for a number of years. He joined us earlier. Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining Afternoon Briefing. You’ve worked alongside Marise Payne for a number of years. What do you think she will be remembered for?


Simon Birmingham: Hi Stephanie, it’s good to be with you. Well, I think Marise will be remembered on two scores. One is somebody who broke through the glass ceiling. She will leave the Senate as the longest serving woman in the history of the Australian Senate, the first woman to have ever been appointed as Australia’s minister for defence and also, of course, the first to be both minister for defence and minister for foreign affairs and the only to date to hold both of those portfolios. So, it really is a notable score of achievements there. But really importantly it’s what Marise has done with those roles as well. In the foreign policy space, her leadership of the Pacific Step Up and seeing the opening of six new embassies or high commissions across Pacific Island nations, the establishment of the new infrastructure financing facility for the Pacific of new climate financing models was really integral alongside the work to take the Quad to a new leader, the first to a new level, I should say the first ever ministerial meetings of the Quad, followed by the first ever leader level meetings of the Quad. Big, big achievements and development of AUKUS. So Marise, you can see, is well regarded not just in Australia but internationally as demonstrated by the US recently asking Marise to act as the ship’s sponsor for the USS Canberra, which was the first ship they ever commissioned outside of the US. And so that’s a demonstration of the high regard she is held in internationally.


Stephanie Borys: Do you think now is the right time for her to go or would you have liked to have seen her stay on longer?


Simon Birmingham: Marise Payne is a sharp intellect, is very thoughtful and considered in her approach, brings to politics a calmness, a consideration and a diligence that is important amidst people. And I’ve got no doubt that she could continue to give and to contribute. But I also understand that having reached the point where she’s the longest serving member of the Senate at present, as well as being the longest serving woman in history, that at some stage there’s a time to go and do other things. And particularly when in Marise’s case, she’s had those huge and challenging portfolios that she delivered in for Australia.


Stephanie Borys: Now, whenever a politician announces they’re leaving, of course, questions followed pretty soon after about who should replace them as a member of the moderates are you hopeful someone like, for example, Andrew Constance could take her place?


Simon Birmingham: Yes, politics is such the king is dead, long live the king is always the case that the march goes on and we are all replaceable in different ways. The New South Wales division of the Liberal Party will follow their democratic processes where individual members will get to have their vote and their say. We saw that play out earlier following the tragic death of Senator Jim Molan and we got an outstanding new Senator in Maria who has replaced Jim there. And she’s making a great contribution, only having just given her first speech last week. And I’ve got no doubt that whomever it is that replaces Marise will be somebody who comes through that democratic process, having proven themselves and demonstrated the contribution they can make to the Senate.


Stephanie Borys: So, you’re not going to put your name or support behind Andrew Constance, Warren Mundine anyone else that maybe should be putting their name up? We saw Matt Kean here in Canberra this week. Do you think that he should be considering a tilt for the Senate?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Matt was there for Maria’s first speech, along with a number of other state MPs from New South Wales who made the trip over when the State Parliament wasn’t in session to support Maria as a new Liberal Senator from New South Wales and was wonderful to see them showing that collegiality and support along with many other of Maria’s supporters. But no, you mention a range of high calibre individuals who could all make a significant contribution and no doubt there could and may well be others who put their names in the ring as well. And that’s the beauty of a democratic process in the Liberal Party, it won’t be just a handful of people in a factional deal that’s settled a candidate. It will be hundreds of Liberal Party members who constitute the New South Wales election college and that will produce whatever outcome. But as I say, I have confidence it will be somebody who has, through that competitive process, demonstrated their worth and their ability to make a contribution.


Stephanie Borys: There had been rumblings for some time that Senator Marise Payne would be leaving Parliament. That now has been confirmed today. Scott Morrison, the former prime minister, has also been talked about as someone that would leave before the next election. Have you heard anything about his intentions, what he plans to do?


Simon Birmingham: No, Scott continues to work as the Member for Cook to make a contribution there in the parliament. He has a unique place in the parliament as a former prime minister, but it’s not unprecedented for former prime ministers to be there and to represent their constituency. And I think as a former prime minister, he has earned and deserves the opportunity to decide his own timing in terms of when he moves on to the next stage of his life.


Stephanie Borys: Speaking of Scott Morrison, he has warned that his successor, Anthony Albanese, should not rush to Beijing later this year. Do you agree with his position?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the Prime Minister Albanese has made the decision that he’s indicated to accept the invitation from China.


Stephanie Borys: Is that a good thing?


Simon Birmingham: That depends on the outcomes that his visit achieves and Mr. Albanese presumably has made that decision believing that a visit will achieve outcomes. And there are many points of dispute still caused by China’s actions against Australia, the continued detention unfairly of Australians, the continued application of various trade sanctions against Australia as well as a number of other important but less targeted concerns we would have in areas of human rights, in areas of military build-up in the region and respect for international rules and norms. I would expect all of these things to be raised by Prime Minister Albanese in his visit. But crucially for Australia, any visit he undertakes needs to have outcomes and particularly outcomes in seeing the continued ending of attempted coercive action against Australia in the trade policy space by China, ending those wine tariffs, ending other trade sanctions against Australia, honouring the terms of the free trade agreement that China voluntarily entered into and making real progress in terms of fairer treatment for those detained Australians. And that’s what this trip will be measured against. Prime Minister Albanese needs to be cautious to ensure that it is not a trip that allows it to be used as any type of propaganda exercise. He needs to make sure there is less of the ceremonial and much more of the working nature because it will be judged on the outcomes that are achieved.


Stephanie Borys: So, it sounds like you’re cautiously supportive of Mr. Albanese going. So therefore, is it sort of unhelpful of Mr. Morrison to put forward his views at a time when Australia really is trying to strengthen and improve the relationship it has with China?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Scott, like any member of the Liberal and National Party party room is free and indeed encouraged to use the platform of our party room to express their opinions. And I think importantly, the remarks that have been attributed to him are not inconsistent with the point I just made, which is that Prime Minister Albanese needs to be very careful to ensure that any trip he undertakes is not used for propaganda type purposes, does not enable China itself to claim a victory, but instead achieves working practical outcomes for Australia. And those particular outcomes need to see further removal of the coercive trade sanctions China has applied on Australia and meaningful progress for the unfairly detained Australian citizens who are in China at present.


Stephanie Borys: So, given what you’ve said then, would you rather maybe see the release of Cheng Lei before Mr. Albanese went to China?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I would like to see the release of Cheng Lei and Dr. Yang Hengjun as soon as possible.


Stephanie Borys: Would that should that be a stipulation on whether Mr. Albanese goes or not?


Simon Birmingham: There is always a question here and it’s one that in terms of the briefings and analysis and work that happens within government, I am not necessarily privy to, but a judgement there as to whether the visit will speed up the outcome or whether you should make the visit conditional upon the outcome occurring beforehand. Now Prime Minister Albanese has obviously leant towards the former of those that he thinks visiting presumably will speed up those outcomes as he needs to be, making sure his ministers, all aspects of the Australian Government need to be making sure they get firm commitments in terms of real meaningful progress so that this visit actually has genuine outcomes to Australia’s benefit, including for those detained Australians, not just something that can be used as a propaganda tool in any way.


Stephanie Borys: Well, we’ll keep a close eye on it in the months ahead, given Mr. Albanese has indicated he will be visiting China before the end of this year. Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time this afternoon on Afternoon Briefing.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Stephanie. My pleasure.