Topics:  Inflation hurting Australians; Julian Assange; Defence contract referred to NACC

04:05PM ACST
27 June 2024


Greg Jennett:  Well, to cover off events of the day and the week, some foreign some domestic Opposition Senate Leader and Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham joins us in the studio now. Welcome back. So, I come to foreign matters in just a second. But why don’t we start there on the economy and those inflation figures yesterday? You’re no longer a finance minister, so you can speak very freely. With inflation running at 4% in May. Is an increase in interest rates now inevitable?


Simon Birmingham: Well, if you look at the markets, some 78%, I think of market expectations are that there will be another interest rate increase before the end of the year, a 14th interest rate increase for Australians. And we know that many Australians are doing it tough right now and clearly the results of the government’s three budgets that they’ve handed down haven’t worked. And this last budget, they had forecasts that were more optimistic than the Reserve Bank’s forecasts. And yet, based on this inflation data, even the Reserve Bank’s forecasts look optimistic and the Government’s look way out of whack.


Greg Jennett: So you now have stage three tax cuts beginning to arrive from next week in an environment that is not as benign for inflation as was anticipated, it was supposed to be in the mid 3% and tracking downwards. Would you now concede, either in their original form or in the reshaped form, in aggregate, they’re still the same size that they are now more likely to be inflationary?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think the totality of government spending is the problem in terms of inflationary environment. The stage three tax cuts were legislated years ago. They’ve been known to be coming. The government should have framed its budget, mindful of those tax cuts and in doing so ensured that Australians got the cost of living support they needed, but not ballooning the public service by thousands of extra people in doing so, creating billions of other dollars of expenditure across the size of government and therefore, as indeed many economists and the reserve Bank have been clear, that government spending overall state and federal is a problem and is contributing to reserve Bank risks about inflation and therefore interest rate increases.


Greg Jennett: Well, arguably states even more so. I mean, if you look at Queensland in particular, the largesse that’s been promised in that state budget is enormous. But the opposition in that state supported it. That’s your colleagues.


Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, we’ve got essentially outside of Tasmania who we love dearly but don’t have a big impact in terms of national expenditure, wall-to-wall Labor governments at present and applying big spending in different ways, bigger debts and deficits in different ways as well. And sadly, Australians look like they’re going to pay the price for that. Now. We don’t want to see interest rates go up. We want to see them go down because we know they’re hurting Australians. But to go down, inflation has to go down. And for inflation to go down, governments have to get a grip on their spending. And that is not the case with these Labor governments.


Greg Jennett: All right. I’m sure that will be pursued around this parliament, the federal parliament, when you return next week. You’ve had much to say about Julian Assange’s homecoming at Canberra Airport last night. Here we are almost 24 hours later. We still haven’t heard from Mr. Assange himself. In view of the rather substantial Australian taxpayer contribution to his repatriation via the consular support program. Are they entitled to explanations from him?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Australian taxpayers are entitled to reimbursement from Mr. Assange. They’re out raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors to pay for flights, to pay for costs. And all of those things should be reimbursed to the Australian taxpayer. The Albanese Government needs to be transparent about what costs it has incurred and make sure that they are reimbursed. With those agreements were put in place, and the Prime Minister needs to be transparent about his homecoming welcome call to Mr. Assange and whether it was all just small talk or whether he put the national interest first and actually said to Mr. Assange, there are expectations that he will not be promoting misinformation in the future or publishing classified and sensitive documents in the future, which, of course, he just only yesterday pleaded guilty to under the US Espionage Act.


Greg Jennett: All right. Well, we will ask government representatives about any costs borne. I think the explanation from Wikileaks is that they chartered the plane, but I, of course, can’t vouch for that. What about other forms of monetisation of the Assange story now that he is free? You’d probably be aware that Schapelle Corby, who was convicted overseas had it was $128,000 in proceeds of crime clawed back from her by the federal DPP. Should Julian Assange be put on notice about any attempt to monetise his story through the media, through books or any other form?


Simon Birmingham: I think many Australians would find it pretty distasteful if he did go off on some profit driven motive to seek advantage out of what are crimes that he pleaded guilty, finally to doing in a US court of espionage related events under US legislation. Now, this whole saga could have been dealt with potentially much, much sooner if he had engaged with the US justice system much, much sooner. As for how he handles his conduct in the future, my number one concern is to make sure that he doesn’t spread misinformation in the future. He doesn’t republish or publish classified and sensitive documents in the future that put people’s lives at risk or jeopardise our security or that of our key allies, and that should be the government’s key objective too.


Greg Jennett: That latter point, is actually covered by the orders in the bargaining deal signed off in Saipan. Isn’t it? The non-publication of any remaining classified documents that’s taken care of under US law, isn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, let’s see, Mr. Assange honour that in relation to the specifics of it, but also honour it more broadly in terms of not repeating that conduct. Of course, we’re all for transparency and accountability, but it’s an insult to journalists like you, Greg, to suggest that what Julian Assange did was journalism, when in fact it was just a data dump, essentially, and a reckless data dump at that.


Greg Jennett: What would have been the threshold for a coalition government if you had been re-elected in 2022 to begin making interventions and representations on Assange’s behalf? Was it just a time period that if it got up towards seven years, that would be enough, or what would have been the threshold?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, firstly, Julian Assange has always been entitled to consular assistance and support, just like any other Australian citizen in trouble. And of course, for a number of years he actually refused to receive that and to meet with Australian officials. But always entitled to it. I think the Justice Department from the US has been clear that time did play a role in their thinking, that the person who supplied Julian Assange with the documents, Chelsea Manning, was released from jail back in 2017.


Greg Jennett: After doing about seven years. So, they kind of become comparable, would that have been the threshold that you would have applied?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it’s notable. The White House has said we had no role in this and that it was a Justice Department decision. The US Justice Department has indeed made a decision that is comparable in that sense, which suggests if Julian Assange had actually faced a court years earlier, rather than spending his time in the Ecuadorian embassy and then fighting extradition from the UK, perhaps he would have been released years earlier as well. They’re all matters for Mr. Assange, though. Certainly we welcome the end of this saga, and our concerns really now are about taxpayers, as you alluded to, and the Prime Minister’s conduct, when it sends all the wrong signals for him to give a hero homecoming, welcome to Julian Assange, and particularly to do so and liken him in any way to people like Kylie Moore-Gilbert or Sean Turnell, who were genuine political prisoners in places like Iran and Myanmar without access to courts like the UK.


Greg Jennett: All right. We will continue to ask those questions, I promise. Quick final one. The defence contractor Thales. ABC News, via our colleague Andrew Green, has broken the news that a lucrative $1.2 billion contract with defence has been referred to the Anti-Corruption Commission for, quote, unethical conduct. This happened during the Coalition’s time in government. Why not picked up?


Simon Birmingham: I think many people were concerned when the Auditor-General’s findings were revealed earlier this week, and it’s entirely appropriate, given those findings, for defence to look at. Referring to the NACC, all public servants are bound by standards that they should conduct themselves by, and if there has been a breach, then certainly laws and public service codes and standards should be upheld and the law applied appropriately. And whether we were in government or anybody else, we would expect that to be the case.


Greg Jennett: Sure, it’s definitely got the relevant authority looking at it now. Simon Birmingham, we’ll wrap it up there. Thanking you as always.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Greg.