Topics:  Solomon Islands elections; ASIO nest of spies; Labor’s detainee debacle;

04:30PM AEST
2 May 2024


Greg Jennett: Simon Birmingham welcome back. Now let’s go to the Solomon Islands. First of all, Jeremiah Manele is the new Solomon Islands Prime Minister, a long-time counterpart of the outgoing PM Manasseh Sogavare. Do you anticipate from him a different approach to security and foreign relations, particularly in light of the election outcome itself?


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Greg. It’s good to be with you. Well, we congratulate Prime Minister Manele on his election and appointment as Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands. The first point to note and to celebrate is that this has been a peaceful, successful election for the people of the Solomons. That is one of the things that is a strong reminder of the shared values that we have as fellow members of the Pacific family, democratic values and interest in the peace, stability and prosperity of our region. It’s in that light that I am sure the government, and certainly from the Opposition’s perspective, we would all, in a very bipartisan way, wish the new Prime Minister well, wish to work closely with him, wish to ensure that the commitments given about Australia’s role as a security partner of choice are commitments that are upheld. Indeed, as in word, and that we are able to work strongly to ensure that the region we share is one where regional partners lead solutions to regional problems.


Greg Jennett: Okay, I think you’ve indicated elsewhere that every election outcome contains messages, and while there will have been domestic factors at work in what happened to the Sogavare government, you said it appears Solomon Islanders have also sent a message about international engagement. Just elaborate on that. What was the message that you think Solomon Islanders sent at the ballot box?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, there will have been, as I said, many different factors at play in terms of domestic politics, but also the issues around international relations clearly played out during the campaign, from news reports and from others who have liaised with who were on the ground during parts of the campaign. Now we saw outcomes that have seen a change in prime minister, not a complete change in government or direction necessarily, but a change in prime minister. As votes shifted away from the governing party, from the former prime minister to an extent. And I think it is clear there that it’s important that as a new government, we look to work with them, but also critically, we trust they will work with Australia and all regional partners in a spirit that really does seek to ensure the Pacific is one led by Pacific Island nations.


Greg Jennett: Okay, so should Penny Wong be seeking to go to Honiara at the earliest? And as an extension to that question, would you be prepared to go with her?


Simon Birmingham: The short answer to that is yes and yes where appropriate. Ultimately, we would expect the Albanese Government to want to and to seek to engage with a new government in the Solomon Islands as quickly as they reasonably can. Respectful of the need for a new prime minister to get their feet under the table and respectful of the timelines that they may have in mind. But it is important that there should be engagement, prime minister to prime minister, as well as from the foreign minister at the earliest opportunities and in the spirit of bipartisanship, to ensure that Australia’s interests and our regional interests that we share with the Solomon Islands and all Pacific Island Forum nations are put at the forefront of the relationship. We, of course, would be willing, as an Opposition, to cooperate in any engagements where that is appropriate.


Greg Jennett: All right, let’s move on. We’ve had stories emerge this week, dating back four years ago to a so-called Indian nest of spies’ actions exposed by ASIO four years ago to remove two Indian agents. You were in government at the time. I’m curious. Why was it dealt with in this way? That is that the two agents quietly left. When at the time, you had very powerful foreign interference and anti-espionage powers at your disposal to prosecute?


Simon Birmingham: Greg, as I think the current government have emphasised, and others who were in government at the time have emphasised none of us would comment specifically about a particular intelligence matter. These things are handled sensitively and appropriately, led by officials and advice to the government of the day at the time. It’s no secret that ASIO and the intelligence community have identified the risks of increasing levels of foreign espionage and interference as being things that government should take seriously. It’s why in government we did put in place additional powers as well as additional funding. Resourcing for the national intelligence community to make sure that Australia, now and into the future, is better placed to deal with that from the range of different players and actors that we see who may be involved. That is important in terms of the sustaining of that focus by the current government to.


Greg Jennett: All right. Noted. Now, on to a domestic matter. You and so many in the coalition have been highly critical of ministers O’Neil and Giles, after the bashing of Nanette Simons in her Perth home by a released immigration detainee. We have got another tranche of laws for these two ministers on the deck under consideration by the Senate when it returns. Would you consider making support for that conditional on the removal of those two ministers?


Simon Birmingham: We will look at those laws on the merits of those laws. As you and I have discussed before when it comes to that legislative package there was essentially a try-on from the government to try to ram them through the Parliament at very short notice, despite the fact they had spent close to a week knowingly sitting on the draft legislation before sharing it and asking for support to ram it through. And since it’s gone to a Senate inquiry, it’s become quite clear that there are problems potentially around some of the details. Widespread concerns have come from different quarters, and so I expect that Senate committee will no doubt have recommendations as to how those laws could be improved if they find that it is appropriate for them to be passed. But we will look at that in the context of the merits of those laws. The question of the ministers. Minister Giles, Minister O’Neil and the ham-fisted way in which they have approached all of these issues, including the presentation of those laws to the Parliament, well the Prime Minister should just show leadership there and cast those ministers aside and put in people who will front up, for example, to actually address these issues. Frankly, I shouldn’t be the one sitting here answering questions in relation to this today, Greg, as happy as I am to do so. Andrew Giles should be fronting up to a camera and a microphone somewhere, anywhere in the country and actually be accountable as the minister.


Greg Jennett: All right. Well, I appreciate as always, your availability and accountability, even for events four years ago, Simon Birmingham. Time has beaten us today. We’ll be catching up again soon, perhaps even back here in Canberra. We thank you as always.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Greg. My pleasure.