Topic:  Ben Robert-Smith verdict; Australian Embassy in Ukraine; Support for Ukraine; Afghan locally engaged employment program; Socceroos funding; 

16:05PM AEST
Thursday, 1 June 2023


Greg Jennett: Well, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham was present through those hearings and many more, I think it’s fair to say, this week. And he’s with us now. Welcome back, Senator. Why don’t we start with the breaking news of the afternoon Justice Besanko’s ruling in the Ben Roberts-Smith defamation case. It is significant. What do you think it means for the reputation of the elite SAS regiment?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, this is certainly a significant as you say, it is obviously a legal process that deserves to be respected. It’s not one that the Commonwealth is a party to. It was between two parties that a civil proceedings matter. But I think there are a couple of broad principles that we need to bear in mind. One is that Australia is a country that applies a standard in terms of expectations of our serving personnel and the transparency and accountability that few other nations in the world apply. We should be proud of those standards, but we should also be proud, overwhelmingly of our personnel of all who have served. And this will be a difficult day for many of those in terms of the way it is reported and how it is reflected. And as a country, it is important for us to speak very clearly of our thanks and our pride in those who have worn the uniform and continue to wear the uniform in defence of Australia.


Greg Jennett: I understand that and there is a lot of ground for us to cover this afternoon potentially, but the role of the media, they had to wage a very intense and I imagine we haven’t seen the figures yet, very expensive battle to establish the truth of these stories in public interest journalism. Should it be that hard? Is are there further reforms that can be made in the public interest for a free press?


Simon Birmingham: Well, people will take their own findings out of this in relation to what it means for press freedom. Ultimately, at least at this juncture, the court has made a finding and a ruling, and with that it has found in favour of those media outlets who had published. And so that will obviously weigh heavily in terms of what proceedings may be initiated by others in future. And they will look carefully at how this trial has set precedents that will flow through and may well have, by virtue of its proceedings, set some of the standards in bars in a different place. As you’ve alluded to in your question.


Greg Jennett: It’s quite an unusual judgement in that respect. Let’s move more on to the ground with which you’re familiar and responsible. This week, the embassy in Ukraine was the subject of questioning in your committee today. Senator David Van doesn’t believe that the current Government is too keen at all on returning Australia’s ambassador to Kiev. Is DFAT being too cautious about this?


Simon Birmingham: It does feel like there is an extreme level of caution being applied here. Australia has successfully operated missions in Baghdad, in Kabul, in many difficult circumstances around the world and being able to provide for the security of the people serving us in those embassies, but equally enable them to be on the ground and have important dialogue with those countries. And it should be possible for us to do likewise in Ukraine. And it is somewhat embarrassing that this issue has reached a point, whereas the vast majority of counterpart nations have moved their ambassadors back into Kiev. Australia has not and it even reached the stage where President Zelensky himself has been asked about this issue and urged Australia to do so.


Greg Jennett: Well, indeed, Australia is the subject of advertisements that are now being made by the Defence forces of Ukraine and other organs of the government there, including one more recently begging virtually for M1 Abrams tank donations from Australia. We know that Richard Marles is working on some further assistance package for the Ukrainian military. Should tanks be in that package?


Simon Birmingham: Well, there should be another package first and foremost, and it should be a comprehensive package. What we heard in Senate estimates today is that there has been no further humanitarian assistance from Australia to Ukraine since before the last election. So the Albanese Government has not committed an extra dollar of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. During that time frame we’ve slipped from being the leading non-NATO contributor of military assistance to Ukraine down that list and indeed your own fact checking unit at the ABC has found that the Prime Minister’s statements that Australia is the leading contributor don’t stack up. So we should be delivering quickly and swiftly another package of humanitarian and military support. It should be looking at whether tanks are possible. It should definitely be delivering some of the many hundreds of Hawkie vehicles and it should be providing other military assistance to help Ukraine prevail, not just in their interests, but in upholding the type of international rules that we consider so important to.


Greg Jennett: It sounds like there might be further discussions on that in Singapore over this weekend. Back on matters related, I suppose, to Afghanistan. We’re jumping around the globe a little here, but the visa program for resettling in Australia, Afghan workers who helped Australian forces there, it is soon to be wrapped up but expanded at the same time. Is that going to deal with the caseload that is outstanding, do you fear? Can everyone be processed through that needs to be?


Simon Birmingham: I hope it can provide the support that is necessary for individuals, but this is of course a very complex set of circumstances. Now, Australia has successfully managed to process and resettle thousands of individuals, many of whom have provided that direct assistance to us during the Afghanistan conflict and of course many of whom would face life threatening circumstances now under Taliban rule.


Greg Jennett: How many more do you think might be outstanding? Who would have to be dealt with before the scheme is closed off?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think the department has provided some estimates in that space. And I’m not going to seek to put my own there. The report from Vivienne Thom is an important one. There is much that we can see Australia has done successfully in that regard, but there’s still work that can and should be done and I hope that the Albanese Government will apply every effort to ensure that those who helped Australia served Australia and were working for a better Afghanistan. Let’s remember that our troops were there and these individuals were there to try to secure rights for women and girls, better education opportunities, better freedoms. And the tragedy is that we’ve seen so much of that stripped away now under the restoration of Taliban rule.


Greg Jennett: Yeah, that’s a program still to be completed. Outstanding work for the government. Also a line of questioning earlier today on the Socceroos looming match in Beijing against Argentina. It was put by members of your party that the match had been promoted by a company aligned with the United Front Work Department. Is the Coalition for or against this match happening? What exactly was the point of querying those arrangements?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it was about trying to understand indeed who is supporting and from who is supporting. We can then understand whether there are risks of influence, undue foreign influence or otherwise in the way in which matches are promoted or undertaken.


Greg Jennett: Do you think there might be on the evidence, you know, flushed out publicly so far, both by the media and members of your own team?


Simon Birmingham: So the mere fact that there does appear to be a significant role of the United Front Work Department in this programming is of concern and does mean that there should be additional support, if necessary, provided to Football Federation Australia to ensure that they have the briefings, the intelligence and understanding to make sure that their players, that supporters, fans and others who may engage in this process do so with confidence that they aren’t being used or at risk of any type of foreign pressure or interference in any way.


Greg Jennett: Would that be public funding from Australia to replace any promotional or appearance fee that this Chinese entity was going to provide?


Simon Birmingham: Well, elements of this will best be sorted through between FFA and relevant government agencies, including our intelligence services, to fully understand the nature of the partnership, who’s involved, what type of briefing should be provided to players, officials and others engaged to ensure that their interests are protected as well as Australia’s interests being protected.


Greg Jennett: Unusual set of arrangements and interesting to see those questions being asked in Estimates. Simon Birmingham, we did cover a bit of ground as we promised we would. Thanks for joining us and you can get back to Estimates.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Greg. My pleasure.