Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs
Leader of the Opposition in the Senate
Senator for South Australia



Interview on ABC Afternoon Briefing with Greg Jennett
Topics: Australia-China trade relationship; US-China balloon; Turkey earthquake; Lidia Thorpe split from Greens; The Voice;

04:20PM AEDT
6 January 2023

Greg Jennett: Simon Birmingham, unfortunately, the death of Jim Molan means that the Senate has suspended its regular work today. Condolences to you and the party. Some touching tributes paid there. But what it does mean is you can spend some time with us on other matters of the day. Now, why don’t we start in the trade area? Because Don Farrell has had that virtual video link up today with his Chinese counterpart, something of a breakthrough there. And it will go further. He will meet face to face at a time still to be scheduled. Do you welcome that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we certainly welcome dialogue and we welcome progress in terms of further dialogue. The reality is that the challenges that Australia faces in relation to China challenges indeed, which the late Jim Molan did highlight very strongly and passionately throughout his career, are real challenges that we continue to face in our region. And we need to work hard to make sure that we uphold areas of regional stability, that we fight very strongly in defence of the international rules-based order and our expectations that major powers do engage and comply with that rules-based order. In relation to our diplomatic and bilateral relations with China the resumption of dialogue which China had frozen for a period of time and their willingness to come back to the table is welcome. But we’ve now had numerous meetings by the Prime Minister, by the Foreign Minister, by the Trade Minister, and of course Australian exporters will be looking to see progress, outcomes and response if the dialogue is actually to be meaningful and beneficial to them.

Greg Jennett: And what would be a reasonable time period for some of those tangible markers of re-opening of markets to flow through from today?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Australia’s wine industry is feeling the pain right now. It’s in the middle of a vintage that will see many grape growers, particularly of red wine grapes and winemakers really feeling the pressure as they are right now. Other sectors are continuing to feel that pain and so the sooner the better. Of course, these have all been actions imposed by China. They’ve been imposed as an attempt at economic coercion against Australia. We have managed to withstand that and I acknowledge the fact that the current government has maintained the policy settings of the previous government, which strengthened Australia’s resilience in the protection of our democracy, of our foreign investment laws of our critical infrastructure. Necessary reforms to ensure Australia is better safeguarded for the future. But reforms that did see China act in terms of this attempted coercion. It’s good that we have withstood that. It’s good that those reforms now enjoy bipartisanship. It’s welcome that dialogue is happening, but China should now remove that attempted coercion and those trade sanctions and do so as quickly as possible.

Greg Jennett: The nature of China’s conduct internationally is still very much in question whether it is changing the way it does business or not. Certainly events over the US with this alleged spy balloon needing to be shot down has put back in the spotlight just how genuine they are on some of these engagements. Would you have raised it? We don’t know whether Don Farrell did, but would you have raised that in trade related talks had you been in the chair today?

Simon Birmingham: Greg, those matters are clearly at this stage ones between the United States and China. Now we support the actions that the United States has taken. They were clearly considered responses in regard to a matter that was impact upon the territorial sovereignty of the United States. And so taking the action they did was valid. And I would urge China to cooperate fully with the United States in terms of inquiries and investigations into what was happening there and to act in a way that can try to provide greater scope for peace and stability rather than the potential increase tempo that those sorts of actions have seen.

Greg Jennett: Can Australia be certain that there hasn’t been a similar flight of surveillance using similar means over this continent?

Simon Birmingham: We should be mindful of the fact that we have seen a range of different incidents over the last couple of years, be it the so-called chaff incidents involving Royal Australian Air Force aircraft or the incidents involving Chinese naval vessels entering Australian territorial waters. So we’ve seen a number of different types of incidents and of course we should be vigilant in terms of the protection of our national security and making sure that we are monitoring always for any type of unusual spying or the like activities.

Greg Jennett: One more on foreign affairs before we bring it back to, I suppose, strictly domestic politics, and that is this what appears to be, anyway, the early signs of a devastating earthquake in Turkey. Will the international community- I know it’s early days, but will the international community have to step in with some assistance there?

Simon Birmingham: This 7.8 magnitude earthquake that seems to be affecting Turkey and likely parts of Syria as well does appear to be potentially quite devastating with loss of life and damage to critical and essential infrastructure. And it will be critical for the international community to work with the countries impacted, respond as quickly and comprehensively as possible to minimise further human suffering and loss of life.

Greg Jennett: Does that become more important because of the strategic significance of both of those countries? You’ve mentioned Turkey in the first instance, there’s a lot going on in that part of the world.

Simon Birmingham: We should see this through a humanitarian lens first and foremost, and I trust that that’s how international emergency response and disaster assistance agencies will see it and that they will be able to rally certainly NAITO and European partners, but indeed others to provide the type of quick emergency response that is so essential in circumstances where when you think about damage to electricity, to water, to sewage, to other essential infrastructure. It’s not just the loss of life that comes from building collapses, it’s the potential other human impacts and toll that is taken by that devastation of essential infrastructure too.

Greg Jennett: And I’m sure the government’s monitoring that as we speak. Bringing it back home, though, we’ve seen Lidia Thorpe split with the Greens today, ostensibly or primarily around the Voice. Would you be comfortable with the position reached by your own party where you are on the same side as Lidia Thorpe on that proposal?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I doubt that the position that we take, whatever it may end up being, and it’s up to the government to provide the detail to enable us to get to that decision. But I doubt the position will be the same as Lidia Thorpe’s, which is to argue for treaty ahead of voice, and she’s been clear about that. Senator Thorpe’s conduct at times is pushing the boundaries of what’s normal, acceptable in terms of the way the Parliament operates or elsewhere. And it’s a reminder that people sometimes vote Greens with the best of intentions, but they can get more extreme outcomes from voting for a party like the Greens and that’s what’s occurred in this case.

Greg Jennett: But nevertheless, on the Voice, you might be there for different reasons, but it’s still, as we speak, a live possibility that your party may adopt a vote no position. It may not, but it could. That would put you on the same side as Lidia Thorpe.

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll see, Greg as somebody who has long supported recognition of Indigenous Australians. I don’t want to see a situation where a proposal is ultimately put to the Australian people that fails and I urge the Government to engage in good faith with the Opposition and with all parties to make up for the lost ground in the way in which they’ve handled this to date, by trying to fill in the details and critical details like how it is that the Voice will engage in consultation on legislative issues. Just what legislative issues will actually be the subject of that consultation? These do need some detailing and Australians, I’m sure, will feel more inclined to support the proposal if the Government can address those sorts of issues as well as others related to the way the Voice is structured itself.

Greg Jennett: Before, whether they do or whether they don’t. Do you want to have a settled position by your party? I’ve seen some reports that there’s desire to settle this one way or another by as early as next week. Does that sound realistic to you?

Simon Birmingham: The engagement process that I’m seeing, Peter Dutton and Julian Leeser, are engaging with the Government in response to Peter Dutton’s request for more detail in information is a good faith one. I expect that to continue and to continue for some time and I would like to see a situation where we aren’t making a decision without the detail in front of us. And so I want to continue to see us give the government the time to provide that detail, but I urge them to give it as soon as possible. The absence of that detail is hurting the yes case, not just in the political context of what the Liberal Party may do, but it’s hurting the yes case in the community in terms of the absence of answers that many Australians have to basic questions that should be provided with detail to them.

Greg Jennett: We’ll keep across that with you and others from your party. Simon Birmingham, great to catch up again. First time for the year. We’ll do it again soon.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Greg. My pleasure.