Topics: Dan Andrews resignation; Timor-Leste and China sign comprehensive strategic partnership; Australia-Pacific relationship;

04:15PM AEST
26 September 2023

Greg Jennett: We’re going to turn to Brisbane now. Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham has been sitting on a Senate inquiry into the rejection of extra flights into Australia for Qatar Airways. We have a few other matters to talk to him about too, and Simon Birmingham is with us live now. Welcome back to the program, Senator. Just a quick observation, I suppose, without being too gratuitous about Premier Daniel Andrews resignation there in Victoria, I guess politically this presents an opportunity for Victorian Liberals to get their house in order. Does it?

Simon Birmingham: Hi Greg, it’s good to be with you. Look, like any retiring leader, I wish Dan Andrews and his family well and thank him for his service. Certainly, he leaves at a time where this year in particular, it seems as if things have been going from bad to worse for the Victorian Government. And while there may be a change of leader, the person who replaces Dan Andrews will have been there as the debt mounted, as the problems mounted as the Commonwealth Games were put on and then cancelled and all of those challenges that have been mounting up. And I would expect that the problems that Victoria is increasingly facing will present a very sharp contrast and choice for Victorians when they do get around to the next election, regardless of who might be leading the Labor Party then.

Greg Jennett: All right, that is their project. Why don’t we move on to federal matters? Mike Pezzullo, the Home Affairs secretary, just sitting out pending this investigation by the Public Service Commission. Your former colleague George Brandis has written his position is plainly untenable – “No Minister, Labor or Liberal will ever be able to trust him again.” Will you?

Simon Birmingham: I think the government has done the right thing by engaging the Public Service Commissioner to look at these matters. I think Mr. Pezzullo is entitled to due process, given the revelations that have occurred. They deserve scrutiny. This process should be undertaken and I’ll respect that process and we’ll see where it leads to from there. But clearly it is important that ministers can have confidence in the integrity, the independence, the impartiality and the advice of their senior officials, particularly heads of government departments.

Greg Jennett: But some of his published texts are just an affront to democracy, aren’t they? We need to build a meritocracy by stealth and run government through the bureaucracy, working to 4 to 5 powerful and capable ministers. This is not exactly a model of good democratic governance that you could endorse, is it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think there are concerns, but I’m going to give respect to the proper process that’s been put in place in this regard. The government’s responded quickly to the revelations. They’ve sent them to the Public Service Commissioner. He’s entitled to that due process before a decision is made.

Greg Jennett: All right. Let’s draw you out on some foreign affairs issues that have bubbled to the surface. I’m wondering whether diplomatic trouble is once again brewing for Australia with near neighbours starting particularly with Timor-Leste. It has an enhanced relationship with China through what’s called a comprehensive strategic partnership announced in China last weekend. Is this to the detriment of Australia’s interests?

Simon Birmingham: Greg, this demonstrates the very intense strategic competition in our region. I think it also shows that perhaps the Albanese Government is being mugged by the reality of the circumstances now. That what we have seen is that prior to the election, Anthony Albanese, Penny Wong and the Labor Party were pretty quick when an agreement was signed between China and the Solomon Islands to claim it was the greatest diplomatic or foreign policy failure since World War II. But now we’re in a situation where Timor-Leste, one of our nearest neighbours, is signing this agreement with China, where equally we’ve seen further advances in the relationship between the Solomons and China. Sadly the Solomons Islands Prime Minister not attending the White House summit being held in the last couple of days. Other challenges in relation to security agreements with Papua New Guinea or with Vanuatu – demonstrating that the challenges are very real. I’m not going to play the type of hyper partisan politics that was played pre-election, but they do demonstrate the very serious challenges we face and challenges that should not have been weaponised or politicised in the way they were in the first place.

Greg Jennett: Well, I wouldn’t expect you to play hyper partisan politics, but I wonder about your own view. We have limited information about the content of this comprehensive strategic partnership, but its mere existence. Is it your view that it would be better if that hadn’t been arranged by Timor-Leste?

Simon Birmingham: I do respect the rights of our sovereign neighbours to pursue their relations and engagements, just as Australia does with China and with any other nation. But I would also expect us to be pursuing, from an Australian standpoint, the closest possible partnership that any nation could have with Timor-Leste. We have a comprehensive strategic partnership with Timor-Leste’s other very proximate neighbours in Indonesia and in Papua New Guinea, and we ought to be in a position where we have as close and as strong a working relationship with Timor-Leste as any other country. What surprises me is the silence from the Albanese Government in terms of when they learnt this agreement was being signed, what the implications of it are, whether they’ve been briefed and how they view it relative to Australia’s position in terms of our engagement with Timor-Leste.

Greg Jennett: Will it lead to more Chinese investment? Is that a natural knock on from the signing of these sort of deals, Chinese infrastructure investment in Timor-Leste, including perhaps gas?

Simon Birmingham: There is always the possibility and it’s usually the hope when these deals are signed. Now, they don’t always, in terms of high-level deals, lead to concrete outcomes. Australia needs to make sure that we double down on our efforts with Timor-Leste as we need to continue to do so right across the Pacific. The Pacific Step Up, led and initiated by the previous government, opening new embassies and missions across the Pacific, increasing infrastructure funding, increasing climate financing. These were all initiatives to make sure that we had a very aggressive and proactive regime of engagement with our Pacific family, neighbours and friends. The current government has continued in a number of ways there, but it’s a sign that we can’t simply think that it is done and dusted at any stage. We need to be constant and vigilant in our actions and that the pre-election posturing of the Labor Party was frankly either politicised or naive in their stance.

Greg Jennett: All right. Simon Birmingham, you’ve already referenced Solomon Islands. Just a quick follow up there. I guess there’s less to talk about than Timor-Leste right now, but it is a matter of record that Manasseh Sogavare lauded China in his address at the UN General Assembly. He praised China’s brand of South-South global cooperation, which is a strategic endeavour of that country. And then he snubbed Joe Biden’s invitation to a Pacific Islands Forum gathering at the White House. Has the time come for Australia to use blunt diplomatic language and publicly criticise this trend in Solomons strategic drift?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ll be very clear. I think some of the analysis and comments provided by Prime Minister Sogavare were wrong, that they don’t acknowledge the significant role, for example, that Australia ourselves play as a contributor and supporter to the Solomon Islands. Ultimately, we ought to be in a position where we are trying to encourage engagement right across the region, by as many nations and players as possible, in a way that respects and underpins the sovereignty of each and every nation and that’s Australia’s position and our approach. It is disappointing that he was unable or chose not to go to Washington and to participate there with President Biden. I would hope that in future we do see a commitment to that type of engagement as well, because the US has an important role to play in the region, as it has done over many, many decades of support and engagement in the Solomons and elsewhere.

Greg Jennett: Yeah, there’s a bit happening in our neighbourhood and not for the first time. Simon Birmingham, I guess that means we’ll talk about this again in the near future. Thanks for joining us there from Brisbane today.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Greg. My pleasure.