Topic:  Australian support for Ukraine; Former Russian embassy site;

04:45PM AEST
Monday, 26 June 2023


Greg Jennett:  Now let’s return to our top story now and Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham joined us earlier to give us his thoughts on Australia’s new military donations to Ukraine. He did that from our Adelaide studios. Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us this afternoon. This package of additional military assistance to Ukraine does seem to have satisfied, at least initially, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Canberra. Does it look like enough to you?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, frankly, it doesn’t. Of course, this package of support enjoys bipartisan support, as we have given to everything that the Government has done, just as they provided to the previous government. But when you compare it against the $285 million of military assistance and support provided by the previous government just in the first couple of months, this is a very slow addition that is probably too slow relative to what could or should have been done to little relative to what Ukraine has been asking for. And these are the genuine concerns that we have that Australia should be striving to keep ourselves at the forefront of non-NATO contributors to Ukraine. We should be listening intently when Ukraine says and they want the Hawkei vehicles, Abrams tanks, de-mining equipment, that they also deserve to see Australia’s embassy in Ukraine reopened and a fair dinkum package of humanitarian assistance. The previous government provided $65 million of humanitarian assistance. This Government’s only providing $10 million of humanitarian assistance. It just doesn’t feel like it’s being given the urgency and importance that it deserves.


Greg Jennett: Okay, so are you a yes, sitting in Opposition of course. But are you a yes to some of those items you just listed? Yes, to Hawkei vehicles? Yes, to tanks? Potentially even, yes to FA18 Classic Hornets? Which we understand are probably under negotiation right now. It’s an open cheque, is it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s not an open cheque. But in principle, we should be able to do better responding to the specific asks of Ukraine. And instead, what we’re seeing here is the Government has put together a package of some different types of vehicles, some of them very old vehicles and pieces of equipment that they’re providing and sending to Ukraine. And we’re going to give complete support to what the Government does do. But our concern is that it doesn’t seem to line up sufficiently with what Ukraine themselves have been asking for. It hasn’t been announced in a timely enough way such that delivery could have occurred before the recent opportunities that Ukraine has been seeking to make. And ultimately the scale of it just doesn’t seem commensurate with the support given previously or the support coming from other international partners and countries that we would usually be aligning ourselves with.


Greg Jennett: But are they fair comparisons even between this current government here in 2023 and the former Morrison government when war broke out? I mean, Ukraine was in convulsion at that point with a massive outflow in the millions of its citizens seeking to settle in neighbouring countries. Of course, the humanitarian assistance required in those early stages was greater than mid war as we are now about 16 months in.


Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, I don’t think that’s the case when you consider the loss of life and the devastation and disruption to so many lives from injuries, from the cutting off of power plants, from the blowing up of the dam and the mass flooding that’s occurred, the humanitarian toll is huge. And Vladimir Putin and Russia rightly stand condemned for that. But we should be doing all we possibly can to respond in terms of that humanitarian support. Again, a couple of contrasting points. Ukraine has given positive noises in terms of seeking de-mining equipment. That is, of course, both military assistance, but also critically humanitarian assistance in making land safe again for people to be able to access. Or the previous government provided energy support in terms of shipments of energy supplies, coal shipments to Ukraine to help them get through winter months. Those things take time and planning and if they’re going to be necessary again in the next lot of winter months for Ukraine, then we need to be making those commitments and exercising those plans now and that again is missing from this Government’s package.


Greg Jennett: Just finally on this matter, because I do want to ask you about Russia’s high court action here in Australia. But do you accept, Simon Birmingham, that these are iterative processes and the Government has not said that this is the last word on further assistance to Ukraine, be it humanitarian or military.


Simon Birmingham: The Government should be keeping all of Ukraine’s requests under constant consideration and review and be bringing them forward urgently. But let’s remember, we were deeply disappointed to see no additional commitments in the recent Budget. That’s why we wrote urging the Government to bring forward a new and comprehensive package of support following the Budget and the failure for there to be one. We welcome this. But frankly, it doesn’t seem to go far enough. And it’s also not, of course, new financial assistance from the Australian Budget perspective. Defence is being asked to absorb all of these costs within their budget bottom line, coming on top of billions of dollars of other cuts that Defence is already having to find and make adjustments for.


Greg Jennett: Yeah, fair point. Look, just on Russia’s lost High Court action over the formerly designated embassy site here in Canberra, what should happen next? Should the Government move quickly with earth moving or other heavy equipment to remove structures and take full possession of this site?


Simon Birmingham: So, the Parliament has made it’s will clear that Russia has no legal entitlement to this land. The Court has now made its intention clear that Russia has no legal entitlement to this land. So, if the Parliament says no legal entitlement to the land, the High Court says no legal entitlement to the land, then the Government should be making sure that it is clearly Australian land cleared of any type of Russian assets or facilities such that there can be no further claim made by Russia or anybody else we wouldn’t want to see occupying that land.


Greg Jennett: Well, we’ll keep an eye on that site, as I’m sure you will too. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time on a busy afternoon there.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Greg. My pleasure.