Topics: Fiji, AUKUS, India

16:10 AEDT
9 March 2023


Greg Jennett: We do have a piece of breaking news to bring to you now. Fiji’s former Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, has been charged by Fiji Police for abuse of office. Now, it’s alleged that Mr Bainimarama and the country’s former Police Commissioner interfered in an investigation into financial mismanagement at the University of South Pacific – that’s the Pacific region’s major university. This is in the context of some fall out since the election that saw him lose office there. We will bring you further updates as that comes to hand through ABC News.


But we do now have with us the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham, where Simon Birmingham, well we welcome you back and we will talk about all the major issues of the day, India and AUKUS submarines but since we did just flash that to air there does seem to be an unsettling period for Fijian democracy off the back of the elections. Would you see this police charge against Frank Bainimarama as fitting into some troubling pattern in the Fijian democracy?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg obviously I’m not going to comment in terms of the domestic legal and political affairs of Fiji. What I would acknowledge is that an election was held last year, a successful election that had strong oversight and saw a peaceful transition of power from one government to another and that’s to be welcomed – the fact that that election was successful, the transfer of power was peaceful. Now of course in relation to other matters it’s important that all principles are upheld in terms of the independence of the police force and the independence of the judiciary – that proper processes are followed so that everybody has confidence in those processes.


Greg Jennett: And would it be fitting for Australian officials to monitor that in the country, do you think?


Simon Birmingham: Look, Australia has strong representation in Fiji, strong interests in Fiji but we also need to maintain our respect for Fiji, its processes, its systems and as long as they are upheld in the same manner in which – and with which the elections were conducted – then that should give everybody confidence about their fairness and impartiality and integrity.


Greg Jennett: OK, well thank you for making those remarks on what is literally a breaking piece of news. Why don’t we go to other, more established leads from the day. Leaks suggesting from Washington and from Westminster up to five Virginia class submarines under the AUKUS arrangement, now if that were correct what do you think that would mean for construction in your home state of Adelaide?


Simon Birmingham: That is going to be a critical question the Government will have to answer as to what does it mean for local jobs, local industry. And the commitment given when the AUKUS deal was announced was that a build of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines in Adelaide – that was the – they were the terms under which the Taskforce was commissioned to go and do its work and to do its work, working in partnership with the US and the UK. And it is critical that the Albanese Government live up to the expectations they have set for South Australians and for defence industry in terms of investment, jobs and support whilst also making sure that they get for Australia nuclear-powered submarines as quickly as possible and the capability to build and sustain those nuclear-powered submarines as quickly as possible.


Greg Jennett: And what was the expectation that your side had in Government about the South Australian local-build component of submarines? It was never, correct me if I am wrong, it was never that the first one or two, necessarily were built there.


Simon Birmingham: Well Greg indeed, Peter Dutton has made public comment since the election and we were clear before the election, that early access to some nuclear-powered boats may be helpful in terms of building capability in the Australian Defence Force, building the ability to operate such boats and making sure that we did get earlier access. But we are talking about speculation now going to what seems to be an even greater possible scale and whilst we want to see nuclear-powered submarines accessed for our Navy and Defence Force as quickly as possible – that is also important for the long term that we get the capability to build and sustain them in Australia in place as quickly as possible to.


Greg Jennett: This suggests a two-design fleet, one which has Virginia class submarines in it initially and then you start to introduce a new type from a UK-based design, apparently. Would it make sense that there was a change in production within South Australia from Virginia builds to this new one or only that the local builds started with the newer type design?


Simon Birmingham: Well, there are lots of questions for the Government to answer in this regard. Now they need to be transparent about what it will mean for jobs, what it will mean for local industry and what it will mean for defence capability. They need to make sure they have comprehensive answers to all of those issues. Of course, questions about how many different submarine operating platforms they can manage simultaneously will be fair questions. We have the Collins-class and the scheduled life of type extension to the Collins-class. There’s talk here of the Virginia Class submarines from the United States and then another third potential platform. So, how will all of those different platforms potentially interrelate? What will it mean for the Collins-class? They’re all very fair questions and the Government’s going to need to have detailed answers to them when it is revealed


Greg Jennett: None of them would shake your foundation principle of bipartisanship though, would it?


Simon Birmingham: We’ve been very clear in our bipartisan support for AUKUS. This was a Coalition Government achievement to make sure that we had Defence investment and spending at levels that made us a credible partner to pursue deals such as AUKUS, that we made the very difficult decision to decide that we were going to go down the path of nuclear-powered submarines because of advances in technology and changes in the strategic outlook in our region. And we want to now make sure that with the Taskforce having delivered on the 18-month timeframe that we set in Government for a report, that we now get those submarines delivered as quickly as possible and the industrial capability in Australia delivered as quickly as possible.


Greg Jennett: Alright, looks like we’re going to have all those details laid out for us sometime early next week. To the India trade mission now, I don’t imagine you have any criticism of it but on what timeline would you look towards a rapid expansion in Australian export trade deals with India?


Simon Birmingham: Well the foundations are there, Greg, for a really quick expansion that we should see. As a Government, we didn’t just sign a new Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement with India, we also signed a new trade agreement with India and that trade agreement has been legislated, entered into force. Key now that the Albanese Government use those agreements that were struck by the previous Coalition Government to really turbo-charge all aspects of the relationship – investment flows; trade flows in goods and services. Just prior to COVID I took, as then Trade Minister, a very large business delegation, including education providers, to India and I’m really pleased to see that education is part of a pillar of this visit building upon those achievements.


Greg Jennett: Sounds like a big part, actually. Finally on a domestic political matter, the Senate I don’t believe got up to machinery of referendum debate or vote but is it still your position that no public funding be committed to campaigning and if so where does that leave this negotiation between you and the Government on that?


Simon Birmingham: Well Greg, the Coalition wants to see that there are formal arrangements in place – a Yes case and a No case. Those formal arrangements are important because they can provide guardrails for the debate, disclosure of funds and all of the types of conditions that sit around election campaigns. Those formal organisations should receive some element of operational funding…but operational finding is obviously distinct from the types of millions of dollars in advertising that I expect the different campaigns will go out and raise as political parties do.


Greg Jennett: And that’s the distinction – have you always made that distinction between administrative costs and campaigning?


Simon Birmingham: I think if you look at my comments yes, I have. I would just urge the Albanese Government in negotiations for this referendum machinery legislation to think long and hard about providing support for that type of approach because it is a sound approach consistent with past practice at referenda and a sound approach to ensure that the debate and the conduct of the campaign is as close as possible to normal election conditions.


Greg Jennett: Alright, well it looks like that is one that is going to spill over into the next sitting period, the Senate working as it does in mysterious ways.


Simon Birmingham: The Government hasn’t even brought to it the Senate floor yet.


Greg Jennett: No, I think it is coming up though. It did clear the House as we understand it. Great to see you.


Simon Birmingham: My pleasure.