Topics:  Coalition policy to raise social media age limit; Chinese President visit to Australia; Adelaide pandas; Redirecting funds of seized Russian assets; SA political donations ban proposal; 

04:10PM ACST
13 June 2024



Greg Jennett: Simon Birmingham, welcome back once again to Afternoon Briefing. We’ve got some foreign affairs matters to get to in a moment, but I thought we might start out domestically. Age verification for social media, probably raising the age to 16 in this country is a big talking point today. The Coalition’s put this down as a first 100 days initiative if you win the next election. I’m going to assert that it’s looking more likely the Labor Government itself could move before then. Based on some comments the Prime Minister expressed today, would you commit to passing any bill in the current Parliament that raises eligible social media age to 16?


Simon Birmingham: Greg, where the Labor Party wants to follow and adapt Coalition policy. Of course, we’ll work if it is a sensible application of that policy and it makes sense. But this is a demonstration that, once again, Peter Dutton and the Liberal and National parties are getting on – still potentially 12 months away from an election – but releasing policy, as we have done in other areas in terms of asset write offs for small business, as we’ve done in relation to access to superannuation for first home buyers, as will continue to do in a range of areas. But this one critically, Peter Dutton showing once more his commitment to the safety and well-being of Australians, and here talking about the safety of young people and children online and addressing what is a concern for so many parents. I speak as the dad of an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old, and knowing that this is one of the hardest things for parenting in this day and age, and how critical it is for us to try to get this right. And frankly, if government can provide a framework that helps parents in terms of limiting access to social media, then that can only be a good thing in terms of helping to ensure that those challenges children face are minimised.


Greg Jennett: All right. Well, there may well be a convergence within the life of this Parliament. We’ll wait and see. That’s a little hypothetical I acknowledge. Let’s move on to the Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s visit. He’s in New Zealand at present, I should say, and there were some impromptu clashes on the streets of Wellington. Do you fear that in some ways it could be a divisive visit in Australian cities too, as pro and anti-Beijing interests take to the streets? There’s some reason to fear that isn’t there?


Simon Birmingham: Greg, premier Li’s visit is a welcome visit. As I’ve said all along, having dialogue is better than having standoff, and the fact that the Chinese government has stepped away from its refusal to engage in ministerial level dialogue with Australia and is having the types of important discussions that governments should be able to have, including on areas of difficulty, is important and is welcome. Australia, though, is a free country, a democratic country where people can exercise rights that those in China are denied, including the right to protest. Protests should always be peaceful, and they should always be conducted in ways that seek to minimise the disruption to others. But the right of people to protest is one we will always defend, and that includes those who want to voice their concerns about the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong, or human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region or Tibet, or other genuine concerns that people have, just as the Australian government must and should raise clearly concerns about the destabilising role China’s military presents in our region. As we’ve seen in the Philippines through the Taiwan Strait and engagements with Australian military, the much greater role China can and should play in trying to put pressure on global, destabilisers like Russia and Iran, rather than conducting joint operations or military exercises with them. And of course, important remaining bilateral issues in trade and in consular matters that must be directly addressed too.


Greg Jennett: Yeah. And I think there have been some public indications, to be fair from government ministers, that most of those areas will be canvassed in official discussions. Look, I don’t want to dwell too long on Premier Li’s visit, nor do I want to sound cynical about pandas, but I know as a South Australian you’d be keen to keep them as an attraction at Adelaide Zoo. Isn’t it time, though, to get pandas that are actually attracted to each other in ways that Wang Wang and Funi clearly have not been?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Wang Wang and Funi have been very welcome residents of Adelaide since 2009. If there are to be new pandas, they will be welcomed as well. It was an initiative driven, I think, initially by Alexander Downer as foreign minister. It was extended again in 2019 when I was trade minister and working with the then Marshall government to ensure we had an agreement with China for that extension. It’s an important exchange. It’s a cultural exchange, if you like. But yes, everybody would love to see pandas that have that attraction and do perhaps produce an offspring at some stage. So if it happens, fingers crossed and much interest, I’m sure.


Greg Jennett: I’m sure there will be. Look, let’s move on with some serious matters of domestic policy. Emissions targets. When did you discover, Simon Birmingham, that the Coalition wouldn’t take a 2030 target to the next election? Was it on Tuesday like the rest of us?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, I’m not going to go to our internal discussions or decision making. What is important is firstly, that Australia plays a role in a critical role in relation to meeting our commitments under the Paris Agreement, doing so to ensure our place in global efforts to tackle climate change, which must be global efforts. But we should not be making promises that cannot be met or cannot be realised. And the reality is that that we saw significant reductions in emissions through the life of the last Coalition government. But under this Labor Government, we’ve seen a 1.4% increase in emissions. We see that the promised trajectory towards renewable energy targets by 2030 is not being met, and that does cast doubt over the targets that the government has said it will meet around emissions reduction and the failure to meet those would, of course, be a blow to Australia’s standing and reputation, which is why reassessing them does make sense.


Greg Jennett: Do you guarantee that a Coalition government will produce a 2035 target after the election?


Simon Birmingham: My expectation is that we should commit and deliver upon the Paris Agreement, which is achieving net zero by 2050 and also entails five yearly commitments on that journey, and that those targets should all be informed by the right scientific evidence, economic analysis, all of which underpins us being as ambitious as we possibly can, but also as realistic about what can be achieved. Ultimately, getting to net zero is going to require some difficult conversations, including the difficult conversation about the role of nuclear energy in our economy. We’ve signalled that we are willing to do that, and that we will release policies well ahead of the next election for Australians to look and to have that debate. That is something that we will be open and transparent with Australians about. But it has to be done in the framework of achieving net zero of remaining committed to Paris and of delivering on the different elements of that commitment to the Paris Agreement, too.


Greg Jennett: All right now, the frozen assets of Russian oligarchs is a live issue in Europe, where there are many billions of dollars worth of assets there. I believe the figure in Australia is about $100 million in property and financial assets. Can or should there be a federal law created to confiscate those assets here?


Simon Birmingham: The Albanese Government needs to stop finding excuses to not do things in relation to supporting Ukraine, and wholeheartedly commit to doing all that we possibly can to support Ukraine. And that includes, if need be, changing Australian laws to enable the use of profits from Russian assets, or the seizing of those Russian assets, and using the dividends to support Ukraine and to help it through, we need to be clear in our support for international efforts to do just that, in terms of the use of those Russian assets and to create the framework where like-minded countries are working as one in that regard, but also to be willing to step forward in relation to Russian assets held in Australia and use legal frameworks possible here. We know that when it comes to victims of crime legislation at the state level, for example, that assets can be seized, can be sold, and those proceeds can be delivered to victims of crime. This is obviously a different circumstance, but one where it should be possible. And if the legal frameworks need to be created, then we are certainly willing to step forward and do just that.


Greg Jennett: All right. We’ll ask government figures about that if we get the opportunity. And finally, Simon Birmingham talking point that emanates from your home state of South Australia. Premier Malinauskas is looking at breaking new ground by banning all external donations and moving to a full public funding model for political campaigning in that state. What do you think of applying that at a federal level?


Simon Birmingham: Greg, I think taxpayers would be somewhat concerned that the taxpayer has to foot the bill for all aspects of political party operations and campaigning. So, I think that is one part of the concern. The other is that Premier Malinauskas’s proposal only applies to political parties and doesn’t do anything about third party campaigning, including unions who are affiliated with the Labor Party, who send voting delegates to Labor Party conferences and Labour Party Pre-selections, and whose stated objective is to help the political objectives of the Labor Party. So, if you’re going to be fair dinkum about this, then you have to find a way to constrain their spending and their activities. Otherwise, you’re just creating a biased electoral environment.


Greg Jennett: Well, I think there’ll be much further discussion about campaign financing reform in this country. We’re going to say farewell at this point, Simon Birmingham noting as we do that you reach a particular milestone, I believe tomorrow you can disclose what that is if you wish. We’re just going to say enjoy it.


Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Thank you Greg, very much appreciated. The big 5 0. Life goes on much more still to do. Thanks very much.