Topics: Labor’s rushed IR reforms; PNG-Australia relationship; Ambassador Rudd

04:10PM AEDT
8 February 2024

Greg Jennett: It’s not just James Marape’s visit, there’s also a bit happening in the Senate as we go to air this afternoon. But despite that, Shadow Foreign Minister and Opposition Senate Leader Simon Birmingham, is able to join us live right now. We welcome you back, Senator.

Simon Birmingham: Good to be with you, Greg.

Greg Jennett: Yeah. Thank you. On the domestic policy front, since I mentioned it there, the closing loopholes, industrial relations laws are going through the Senate chamber this afternoon. Will the Coalition promise to roll back any or all elements of this in office, given that you find it so objectionable?

Simon Birmingham: Greg, we’ll certainly be taking detailed industrial relations policies forward at the next election. And Australians, be they employees or employers, can bank on us to be looking carefully at things that ensure we maintain fairness for Australian employees and employers, but also maintain productivity, competitiveness, efficiency across the Australian economy. And right now in the Senate, you’ve got the madness where the Albanese Government has caved in to the Greens for this so-called right to disconnect provision. And yet, having caved into a Greens amendment, they’re desperately trying to amend the Greens amendment because they don’t like what’s in there. It’s a complete, rushed shambles that has been done without proper consultation, without anybody really being able to stand up and explain what this means. But presenting an enormous threat to Australian employers and employees of confusion that will only hurt productivity and only make employers more reluctant to give people a job.

Greg Jennett: Okay, so since you describe it in that manner and you identify that particular measure as a problem, does that mean you’d be leaning towards its abolition if you had that opportunity?

Simon Birmingham: There are lots of things across the different tranches of IR legislation that this government has put forward, which we will be looking very closely at. In looking at them, we’ll be consulting with employers and employees to take policies to the next election, identifying where we will make changes and improvements. We’ll do that consistent with our values being very fair to all, but wanting to make sure above all else that we’re stimulating jobs, growth and productivity across our economy so people can have greater confidence in their jobs, greater security in their jobs, greater confidence in the take home pay they get. But of course, for all of that to happen, employers need a productive workplace, not one where unions have got the right to trample all over the workplace, to bash down the door in the workplace, and ultimately to tie them up in so much red tape over whether or not somebody sent an email over a weekend.

Greg Jennett: Okay, that’s that’s the tension that’s embedded in this, trying to, in a economy wide sense, generate productivity while also being fair to workers. So minimum conditions for Uber drivers or gig workers as they’re called, these are yet to be defined or will be defined by the Fair Work Commission. But does that pass the test of fairness and productivity enhancement?

Simon Birmingham: Well, on some of these things, as your question literally demonstrates they are yet to be defined. So, that’s why we will be careful in taking our time to make sure that we are consulting and that we get it right. It’s not just a binary proposition of do you roll back what Labor’s done? Or do you accept what Labor’s done? There may well be different pathways that we choose to take, and that’s why we will present a considered policy. But Australian employers and employees can be guaranteed it will be a policy that looks to address the problems we see in Labor’s laws, and in doing so, to get that balance right, not the type of madness we’re seeing playing out at present, where employers will be wondering when they can send their employee an email, when they can send them a text message, or when they might be hauled before a court for doing so and potentially face fines or even criminal penalties under what Labor’s squabbling over in the Senate at present.

Greg Jennett: All right, let’s move on to matters within your shadow foreign responsibilities. You’ve been centrally a part of this great celebration of 49 years of Australia-PNG relations around here today. Would a measure of the strength of that relationship be the abandonment in Port Moresby of any further consideration of China’s offer of security assistance?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, it is a big celebration today and it is a demonstration of how, when it comes to a special, important relationship like the Australia-Papua New Guinea one, we have as much of a bipartisan approach and governments build upon the blocks of their predecessors. That, I think, was evident in Prime Minister Marape speech today, where even from recent times, he acknowledged the Comprehensive Economic and Strategic Partnership agreement that was sealed under the Morrison government and how that was a prelude to the security agreement that has been sealed more recently under the Albanese government. These are all about ensuring special ties lead to the peace, security, prosperity of our region. A big part of the respect we have for one another to deal with your question is respect for the sovereignty of each other and wanting to ensure that as partners, we help to secure and underpin that sovereignty. So, we have to respect Papua New Guinea’s ability to engage with nations as they see appropriate, but also to ensure that we encourage them to engage in ways that guarantee their sovereignty, their security in the region.

Greg Jennett: Are you sounding less alarmed by that Chinese offer today than a couple of weeks ago, when there were some news attention being paid to it. I think then you were reminding everyone of comments Penny Wong, in opposition, had made about the Solomon Islands security deal. Are you for a whole range of reasons, less alarmed by the status of this offer from Beijing?

Simon Birmingham: Well, of course, we don’t want to see a situation where anywhere in our region, the security is undermined as a result of people from outside of the region exerting undue influence or pressure, or acting in ways where their security influence could undermine that sovereignty and independence of different nations. The government talked a very big game when it came to the Solomon Islands, and they do need to live up to that game. But you asked a question specific about Papua New Guinea and in relation to Papua New Guinea we of course, have our respect for them. That’s important to underscore, especially on days like today. But also, we’ll have the dialogue as we’ve had directly and no doubt the government has as well about what we think that means in terms of how we can work with them to support them, to ensure they have security arrangements in place that meet their needs and they do that best with Pacific partners.

Greg Jennett: All right, let’s move to the Middle East. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is actively working to build support for some sort of ceasefire deal with Hamas, even if he holds reservations about particular elements of Hamas’s counteroffer to this proposal. Yet, on the other hand, Benjamin Netanyahu is not for compromise. He is for, quote, absolute victory, unquote. Should the Israeli government now soften its objections and consider compromise?

Simon Birmingham: Well, there are a number of factors there. Firstly, is we should all still be crystal clear in wishing to see Hamas disabled and removed from a position of power and influence, and that is critical, because Hamas has made clear publicly their desire is to repeat the atrocities that occurred on October 7th, when more Jews were killed in a single day than on any other day since the Holocaust. So, to avoid that repeat, it’s important that Hamas is not given any opportunity to rearm, to reorganise and to be able to repeat that. But of course, we urge parties to stay at the table and try to pursue the type of settlement that could see hostages released, as well as seeing Hamas effectively disabled and disarmed.

Greg Jennett: But you can’t have both, can you? You can’t have negotiation with an entity that you would seek to eliminate.

Simon Birmingham: Well, ultimately, this depends very much on Hamas, who claim to stand up for the Palestinian people but use them as human shields are abusing that by having a vast tunnel network that runs underneath schools, hospitals, other public infrastructure right across Gaza and therefore exposes the Palestinian peoples living there to risk, tragically, in the type of war that we’re seeing unfold. We’ve got to be clear about the principles here, though, and those principles have to start with seeing Hamas removed, or else we just see the terrorism and the violence repeat and perpetuate, just as Hamas has said they wish to do.

All right. Noted. Look, just a quick one on AUKUS before you go, Simon Birmingham, you may or may not have seen former Trump adviser Steve Bannon on Sky News in the last 24 hours he was lining up criticism of Ambassador Kevin Rudd says he’s got it dead wrong on China often, and that Ambassador Rudd has been very critical of Donald Trump in the past. And now Mr. Rudd, quote, is trying to worm his way back into the good graces, unquote, presumably of Republicans. Does this alarm you that the Australian Government, via Mr. Rudd, may not be able to build the necessary relationships needed with a second Trump administration?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I haven’t seen Mr. Bannon’s interview, but taking the extracts you’ve just highlighted, Greg, it is firstly important and a core part of Ambassador Rudd’s job, of Kevin Rudd’s job in Washington to build relations with the existing administration, a cross congress, and with any alternate potential administration and that includes former President Trump and his run. Ambassador Rudd needs to be able to do that and do that comprehensively and effectively. More broadly, AUKUS is bigger than any one of us. It goes to Australia’s security and our shared regional security across the three AUKUS partners, and it is critical that Australia put its best foot forward at any time of whomever is undertaking those discussions. And if at some stage a position emerges where an advocate cannot do so, then that will need to be addressed.

Greg Jennett: Okay, we’ll be keeping an eye on that through the countdown to November in the United States. Simon Birmingham, we’ll look forward to you joining us again. But thank you. I know there’s a lot happening in the Senate right now.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Greg.