Topics: Safeguard mechanism, Warning from foreign investors; Voice referendum; Further military support for Ukraine

04:20PM AEDT
Thursday, 30 March 2023


Greg Jennett:  Well, as of just a few moments ago, really, Australia has a full set of laws and regulations ready and in place now to drive down carbon emissions. The safeguard mechanism is through both the Senate and the House. It’ll impose limits on emissions for 215 facilities, and it’s meant to set the country on a path to a 43% cut in national carbon emissions by 2030. Debate in the Senate was long and the Coalition voted against the mechanism all the way through. Although there was this moment of political introspection, I suppose you could say, from the Opposition’s Senate Leader in the depths of late-night debate.



Simon Birmingham: President. I regret that internal debates over matters such as the net zero commitment or images of those holding lumps of coal undermined the credibility of these strategies, and with that undermined the focus on the investment the success Australia has achieved in emissions reduction. Take our work in relation to setting the nation up for hydrogen. We built and established major new cooperative agreements with Germany, with Japan, with Singapore, with the UK to build hydrogen supply chains to share technology.



Greg Jennett: Well, Simon Birmingham is also Shadow Foreign Minister and he joins us in the studio right now. Welcome again, Simon. The safeguard mechanism is done, dusted through the Parliament now. What were you trying to say there? You seem to rue that the former government of which you were a member was undermining its credibility. Is that still applicable today? Is it still your belief that the Morrison government undermined its own credibility on climate change?


Simon Birmingham: I think it was certainly harder for us at the last election to be able to convince Australians that the many things we were achieving in terms of the significant reduction in emissions achieved, the investment in hydrogen, the range of other measures in place were genuine. When there was a very divisive debate, a public debate that ensued where we ultimately got to make the net zero commitment by 2050. But it was a messy process to get there. And so those things didn’t help then. It’s important that we go to the next election with good, strong, clear policies and unity of purpose around the commitments that are made as well.


Greg Jennett: So it was really a wake up call to your party for the years, let’s call it two years, that lie ahead from here.


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s important that we do learn lessons from the last election for what we take forward to the future. And in 18 months, two years time, we are going to need to present to the Australian people clear plans that track our economic management of Australia as we always hold out clearly in terms of the strength of Coalition economic management, clear plans to help drive down cost of living, but also clear plans in terms of climate change that Australians can have confidence in.


Greg Jennett: Some of these messages are complicated to establish, particularly on climate. Should you wait two years until the death knell of this Parliament before laying out exactly what your own pathway in government would be to the targets that you now adopt?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we should release our policies at the time that best suits us in terms of how we most effectively communicate them to the electorate and of course we’ll take that into account. But we’re still well and truly in the first half of this parliamentary term. So it’s the time to do as is exactly what is happening, to be doing the policy development behind the scenes. And I know Ted O’Brien is working very hard in looking at the different policy options that can manage to get power prices down for Australians, reliability in place and achieve emissions reduction. And that’s precisely the type of work I expect Ted will bring forward and ultimately release to the Australian people.


Greg Jennett: One of those is nuclear apparently, but I want to take you to gas where coinciding with the safeguard mechanism debate today. The head of the Japanese company Inpex has been in this building delivering a speech and saying unfortunately the investment climate in Australia appears to be deteriorating, in Japan we say don’t cheat at rock, paper, scissors. This translates to don’t move the goalposts after the game has started. What do you say to reassure investment partners like Japan that Australia is a sound place for energy and resource investments?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, sadly I can understand why the Inpex CEO is concerned. Now let’s make sure that viewers understand Inpex is responsible for the biggest Japanese investment in Australia’s history. So they are a very big and significant player in terms of foreign investment and they’ve created thousands of jobs in Australia as a result of their investment in the gas industry. The Inpex CEO is particularly responding to the Labor Government’s gas market interventions that occurred late last year. And he’s called it out as hurting investor confidence, as creating an environment in which he can see a potential substitution towards coal so that in fact it will hurt and harm the drive to net zero and that it could even create more market opportunities for countries such as Russia or Iran. These are all negative things for Australia and that’s why the Albanese Government should take this as a wake up call.


Greg Jennett: In your view, does it point to the potential for a flight of capital from Australia?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s a real risk that major investors will choose elsewhere and that it does hurt clearly the foreign investment confidence in Australia and that confidence is critical. Now, we saw decisions such as the investment in Inpex happen and delivered under the Coalition. It is astounding that the Trade Minister, Don Farrell, today sort of sought to sweep it away and suggest that there was no consequence to these remarks. Well, this is the biggest recent investor into Australia and they are saying there is real consequence. And so Don Farrell, Anthony Albanese and this entire Labor Government really should heed the message and take the wake up call delivered.


Greg Jennett: I’m sure we’ll try and elicit from them more detailed responses. Can I take you to the Voice now? Do you believe it could disrupt Australia’s very stable system of government?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think we’re now going to get a proper parliamentary process of consideration of the proposal the Government’s brought forward. I would wish that the Government had taken more effort to heed conservative constitutional scholars in their concerns because ultimately getting a successful referendum that provides for recognition and a voice, but a voice where everybody can have confidence that it won’t cause any disruption is what I would rather see occur. The Joint Select Committee that’s going to undertake its work between now and May will be important opportunity and the last chance for the Government to change the wording if it needs changing and to actually present something that can get the maximum support from Australia.


Greg Jennett: Well, that’s my question. Does it need changing? Is it your goal to use the Joint Select Committee process to expunge the words ‘the executive government’?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I expect the select committee will hear, as it should, from a lot of constitutional scholars, and it should approach that work with an open mind. And I would urge the government and the government members of that select committee to approach it with the same open mind that I hope and trust the opposition members do, which is to try to achieve a constructive outcome. That means if Australia is going to have a referendum, it’s one where on this topic, ideally it should have the best possible chance of success. And that may mean tightening the wording, narrowing the scope of what is put in the Constitution, noting that just because the Constitution doesn’t say a voice could make representations to executive government wouldn’t prohibit a voice from choosing to make representations to executive government. But you don’t need to empower it in the Constitution and create the risk of that part of the Constitution being used in future legal proceedings before the High Court.


Greg Jennett: I saw briefly before you came in the membership of the Joint Select Committee, and it did seem that Liberals were relatively underrepresented in the make up of the committee as compared to the Greens, Nationals. I think I saw Keith Wolahan’s name there. Is that deliberate? Why? There were no Liberal Senators that I saw on the list? Whose choice was that?


Simon Birmingham: There will be two Liberal Senators on the list and they will be Senator Kerrynne Liddle, a strong, thoughtful Indigenous woman, and Senator Andrew Bragg from New South Wales, who was he might have been known for his views in relation to wanting to see a Voice and supporting that. But, but equally Andrew has expressed some of the same concerns I have about getting the wording right. So I think Andrew will add great weight to that.


Greg Jennett: Thank you for clarifying that it might have been an incomplete list that I very quickly cast my eye over.


Simon Birmingham: It looks like it was, Greg.


Greg Jennett: It was, yeah. Okay. And finally, Ukrainian delegations have been to here in the last couple of weeks. I think you’ve seen at least one of them. This is wearing your shadow foreign hat. They are appealing for more military donations from Australia, potentially including tanks. Would you be encouraging the latter?


Simon Birmingham: Short answer, Greg, is yes. And so I have met with delegations both from the Australian Ukrainian community, but also parliamentary delegation from Ukraine who visited here, and it was very powerful to hear their perspective about life in Ukraine and the needs of Ukraine, the optimism they have for being able to win this war and force Russia to respect international law, respect their sovereignty and their borders. Australia had a comprehensive package of support at the start of this war, humanitarian assistance, military assistance, as well as support for fleeing Ukrainians in terms of visa support. The Albanese Government should approach this budget with a similar comprehensive package humanitarian assistance, military assistance, not just another one off announcement, but a further comprehensive package of assistance for Ukraine because their success is important to us and to every other democratic nation or small nation to ensure that they are not under threat from a larger, more powerful neighbour.


Greg Jennett: Yeah, well, it looks like there might be a few defence announcements pending with the strategic review and other announcements between now and then as well. Simon Birmingham, really appreciate your time this afternoon.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Greg. Great to be with you.