Topics: Opposition meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister; Ambassador Rudd;

04:50PM AEDT
20 March 2024


Greg Jennett:  Senator, welcome. We will get to Kevin Rudd, I promise. But as you’ve come directly-


Simon Birmingham: We don’t have to.


Greg Jennett: We will, we will. I think we might have discussed it before by the way, on this programme. You’ve come directly from the meeting with Wang Yi. We’ve reported the breadth of issues that Penny Wong discussed with him. What did you raise?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Peter Dutton and I have just concluded a meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and it was courteous of the Chinese to provide that opportunity for a meeting to the Australian Opposition. It’s not the first meeting with visiting Chinese officials we’ve had. And it certainly is a demonstration that, just as in the past, Coalition governments have established the comprehensive strategic partnership between our nations, the free trade agreement between our nations. We are committed to dialogue, and we welcome the fact that China has made decisions to resume dialogue with Australia, which has been important.


Greg Jennett:  I know you’re often constrained in reporting back the exact nature of the exchanges, but was there any revisiting of the Morrison government tensions by Wang Yi?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I won’t go into the detail of the conversation, but I can say that it was a meeting where the comments and discussions focused on the here and now and the future, rather than looking backwards. We absolutely addressed a broad range of issues and made our concerns known in a number of areas, but also highlighted the importance of the Chinese diaspora in Australia and the importance of ensuring that they, along with other Australians and people across China in the strong people-to-people links, business-to-business ties are enabled to fulfil the potential whilst ensuring that at a government level, those differences and concerns in regional security, in consular cases, in relation to resolving trade disputes are addressed and need to be addressed appropriately through proper dialogue.


Greg Jennett: Okay, it does sound like your topics of conversation must have lined up somewhat with Penny Wong. She’s listed those publicly as human rights, maritime security and safety, regional issues and global ones – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Middle East. Doctor Yang Hengjun was obviously among the detained Australians that Penny Wong raised. Did you broach that? And if so, did you put any proposition about where that sentence, if it is commuted to a life sentence, should be served?


Simon Birmingham: I would hope that Foreign Minister Wang Yi will leave Australia following the range of meeting he’s having, with an understanding of the depth of emotion that Australians felt about the sentencing of Yang Hengjun, the strong desire across Australia to see him treated with compassion, and that we would wish to ultimately see him provided with a pathway to return to Australia.


Greg Jennett: Did you make that clear that latter part, the return to Australia?


Simon Birmingham: Our positions publicly are the same as they are privately, and we seek to make that clear, doing so respectfully, but ensuring, I hope, as I said, that across the political spectrum, the desire to see compassionate treatment, there have been concerns for his health. And ultimately, we want to put the issue in terms of his interests and those of his families at the forefront.


Greg Jennett: All right. Thank you for that instant readout. Let’s move on to Kevin Rudd now. Now, the Coalition asked questions in reps question time. I didn’t get to monitor what was asked if any question in the Senate, but the question was will the Prime Minister be reassessing Mr. Rudd’s position as ambassador? This obviously, in light of what Donald Trump has had to say. In asking that question, is the Coalition suggesting that this appointment should be reassessed?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, it’s deeply disappointed that you didn’t catch Senate question time. But there we actually asked Trade Minister Don Farrell to revisit and clarify his remarks that he didn’t see the United States as our most trusted partner and sadly, he has not done so. The Prime Minister and Senator Wong really need to go back and have a look at what Senator Farrell has said. He refused to clarify and pull him into line.

In relation to Kevin Rudd we were positive about his capabilities upon his appointment. But of course, I’ve always acknowledged that any ambassador in Australia, in the United States or representing Australia needs to be able to work across the aisle to ensure they achieve the best interests for Australia. It’s not about Kevin Rudd. It’s not about any individual, it’s about Australia’s best interests. If there are relationships that he needs to repair, then he needs to set about doing so to ensure that he can put Australia’s interests first, regardless of the outcome of US elections.


Greg Jennett: Is that condition still being met by Kevin Rudd? The ability to, you know, repair and or get along with both sides of the aisle, but principally with candidate Trump?


Simon Birmingham: Well, he’s been working hard to achieve outcomes in relation to AUKUS legislation and similar matters of importance under the current administration and with the current Congress. But if there are relationships to repair for potential future administrations, then it’s incumbent upon Mr. Rudd, as well as the Prime Minister and Senator Wong, to make sure that they address those relationships so that Australia’s interests are served, regardless of who is occupying our embassy in Washington.


Greg Jennett: You are putting down some markers here. You obviously harbour some reservations. Do you reserve the right, if necessary, to withdraw publicly stated support for Ambassador Rudd?


Simon Birmingham: We don’t want to get ahead of these matters. Greg. The US election is in November. Australia will have to respect, as we always have, the outcome of the democratic will of the American people. We’ve done very well in being able to work across relationships of all stripes. Joe Hockey did an exceptional job when he was ambassador, ensuring that with the first Trump administration, Australia was spared some of the trade tariffs on steel and aluminium that were imposed elsewhere, and that we had strong deep relations into that White House. Equally, that’s continued through into the Biden administration, the securing of AUKUS. We have to make sure the continuity of the depth of that relationship, because ultimately our AUKUS partnership and defence relationship depends upon it. Our security relationship through the Five Eyes agreement depends upon it, and our cooperation around the rest of the world depends upon an effective relationship at all levels between our governments and our ambassador in Washington is in the driver’s seat of that for much of the day-to-day aspects of it. That’s why they’ve got to be able to work across the aisle.


Greg Jennett: Well, I don’t think that’s in dispute and evidently, at least an aspect of Kevin Rudd’s day job is now cut out for him in that respect. We’ll see how he performs and keep across your assessments of his performance in the rest of the year. Simon Birmingham, really appreciate you getting to us in double quick time after your meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you. Greg.