Topics: Additional aid for Türkiye earthquake response; Australia’s nuclear obligations; Government must provide a comprehensive response to Defence Strategic Review; Defence funding; Safeguard mechanism; Nikki Haley nomination for US presidency;

04:05PM AEDT
15 February 2023

Greg Jennett: Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham is with us. He’d spent most of his day in that committee asking questions of defence officials, which we’ll get to in a moment. Simon Birmingham, but a bit of breaking news. The Prime Minister has gone out to the embassy of Türkiye here in Canberra today to sign a condolence book and there has announced an extra $8 million in aid on top of the 10 million about which I think we spoke last week. Will that be sufficient given the scale of the earthquake disaster that we now understand?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, nothing can completely undo the harm, the devastation, the challenges that are being faced by people across Türkiye and Syria at present. I think we were speaking last week just as news of the earthquake had broken during that day. And of course, what we’ve seen since is a huge human toll and it will be an ongoing toll. The damage to infrastructure, to critical and essential services mean that the challenges in terms of delivery of clean water, of basic food, medicines, other elements, as well as shelter and safety, are going to be ongoing for some time to come. I welcome the Government’s additional commitment, but of course the government should work closely with international partners to make sure that we’re playing an appropriate role commensurate with our scale as a nation and relationship with that region.

Greg Jennett: Fair enough, then we’ve also got those 72 search and rescue workers in country as well. Why don’t we go to defence matters, though. And you weren’t asking questions about this today, but the Greens were. We just played a clip from the committee around US Strategic ambiguity on its nuclear force, that is don’t ask, don’t tell, when visiting a country like Australia as to whether there are nuclear warheads on board its aircraft. Is that a sustainable position for Australia, given that we fully expect through this strategic review that there’ll be more US forces, more planes here more often? Are Australians entitled to know?

Simon Birmingham: Greg, I think officials were perfectly clear in terms of both Australia ensuring our compliance with the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty, which ensures that nuclear weapons are not based in Australia, and our work to ensure that the United States understands and gives us the commitments in terms of their compliance with that. There are provisions, as was made clear by Defence in relation to visits and visiting ships or visiting aircraft in that regard. But Australia takes these obligations very seriously and does make sure that we adhere to them consistent with the importance we place on them with the region. And that’s the same regardless of who’s in government.

Greg Jennett: And is it the same regardless of the number, the sheer number of aircraft that might be here? Because I don’t know if you agree, but it does appear that the government has cleared space for itself to announce through the strategic review far more frequent visits by B-52s, B-2s or any of their strategic bomber fleet.

Simon Birmingham: Well, it will be for the Government to provide certainty around future basing and visitation or rotation arrangements. We look forward to seeing the details of the Defence strategic review as quickly as possible. The Government received it yesterday. We can read different elements of it in the newspapers today, which is somewhat concerning that briefings appear to already be happening. And if that’s the case, I hope the Government can move quickly to make decisions around it and to provide a comprehensive response to it, which is in the national interest for Australians to know what the Defence strategic Review recommended and how the Government is responding in a comprehensive way to those recommendations and to understand that as quickly as possible.

Greg Jennett: Alright, one question you did or a series of questions you did ask today is around funding that will almost certainly have to grow along with the ambition of Australia’s capability expansion. Does it seem realistic to you that Australia will have to move from the current ballpark 2% of GDP to an ambition of 3% defence funding?

Simon Birmingham: We certainly acknowledged in the latter time of the previous government that moving up beyond that 2% was likely to be necessary. Back in 2013, when government changed from the Rudd-Gillard government into the Coalition government at the time, defence spending a drop to 1.56% of GDP, the lowest level since World War Two. We brought it back up to 2%, which adds around $10 billion per annum into our defence expenditure. There wouldn’t be any credible defence strategic review, there wouldn’t be any AUKUS partnership, there wouldn’t be any new shipbuilding program if we hadn’t restored defence spending to that level.

Greg Jennett: Sure, but that’s not the end of the line, is it?

Simon Birmingham: That now provides the capacity for the Government to look at the next stages. And we acknowledged that particularly the nuclear powered submarine commitment was likely to mean it was going to have to go beyond that 2% and again it’s for the Government now to spell out just how they’re going to achieve that and to do that as quickly as possible, given it seems pretty clear that they have made their decisions in response to the nuclear submarine task force and that it’s now just a case of awaiting the announcement. And that announcement should certainly be coupled with clear funding details, just as they should respond clearly to funding recommendations in the Defence strategic review.

Greg Jennett: Alright, we’ll make a point of asking Richard Marles about that when he joins us. Can I take you to other politics of the day and things are heating up on the safeguard mechanism. The Greens are demanding that the Government have no new coal or gas. Is the Opposition’s position absolutely settled on this as we speak? Because it looks- the reason I ask is a vast amount of this mechanism can be done by regulation where you’re not really asked to do anything other than to jump to your feet and try and disallow it in the Senate. Is that what you’re proposing to do?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, we’ll see what regulations the Government brings forward. Ultimately, it’s for them in terms of the regs and how they structure it. I think Australian business and industry probably needs to be bashing the doors down across this building to firstly make clear that for them the consequences of the type of ban the Greens are proposing would be devastating. They would clearly be inflationary, they would drive up energy prices, they would create massive uncertainty, they would hurt our export markets. It’s a range of reasons as to why they’d be bad for Australia and why the Government is right to rule them out and should rule them out. Of course, there are also problems with the Government’s proposal in the details of the safeguard mechanism, the uniform linear reduction in emissions that they’re proposing for certain industry sectors that have high levels of trade exposure, high risk of carbon leakage offshore and low capacity in terms of known technologies to actually reduce their processing or industrial emissions are genuine problems. And I would want to see the Government listen to those industry sectors and work out how to address their concerns.

Greg Jennett: So that’s your criticism of it, though? I’m interested in what your actions might be because the nature of disallowance is you don’t have to do anything. You can just sit there and it remains as the law of the land under ministerial edict. Have you spoken to the Greens? Is combining with the Greens to knock this regime out through disallowance, something that you are actively working on in the Senate?

Simon Birmingham: I’m not aware of any collaboration with the Greens around these matters. As I just expressed to you, there are concerns that I think are legitimate concerns for elements of Australian industry. Of course I acknowledge that other parts of industry are asking for certainty in regards to these matters and it’s why I think it’s really important that those voices of industry knock down the doors of this building, make their views clear across all parties so that the best possible outcomes for Australia can be achieved in terms of investment certainty for the future.

Greg Jennett: That was the Government points out frequently many business groups have absolutely signed up and publicly so, supporting the mechanism.

Simon Birmingham: Some have and I just acknowledged that. That those groups need to be working closely with the sectors who are directly affected in a negative way and actually present the most uniform way possible forward that guarantees investment certainty for Australia while, of course, achieving emissions reductions.

Greg Jennett: All right. Why don’t I take you back to foreign matters for which you are responsible in the opposition these days? Nikki Haley is the first Republican to break ranks and in a way break her own word to take on Donald Trump for Republican nomination. She’s known to Australia for her previous role at the UN. Do you think this presages other Republicans now joining the race and pretty quickly from here?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the United States is a vibrant democracy and the presidential campaign process, as we know, can run out over a very long period of time. We won’t actually see Americans voting until next year and casting their final ballots until November next year. So, this is a hell of a long campaign that many Australians would think sounds like a horrific experience.

Greg Jennett: Very long.

Simon Birmingham: But in terms of who they actually consider to be the next president, that’s a matter for them. We should respect their democracy. It’s important that they uphold their democracy and that they show respect for it too, because that’s an important value and principle. The US demonstrates to the rest of the world, but let the candidates wage their campaigns in a fair and free way, consistent with that democracy.

Greg Jennett: And is she a quality candidate, in your experience? Not that you were necessarily working directly with her. I suppose Julie Bishop was, but a quality candidate?

Simon Birmingham: She clearly brings experience as a former governor, as a former ambassador to the United Nations, as a former US cabinet member. And so all of those factors, I’m sure, will be part of the campaign. She wages around her experience and were she to be elected president of the United States. Well, whether it were a Coalition government or a Labor government, I’m confident that we would all put our best foot forward in working with her, as we will with whoever the US people elect.

Greg Jennett: And as you say, there’s an awful long way before we get to that. Any number of nominees yet to step forward. Simon Birmingham, you’ve probably got estimates to get back to, so we’ll thank you and talk again soon.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Greg, my pleasure.