Topics: Government rushing legislation; COP27 loss and damage fund; Australia-Pacific relations; Sanctions; Australia-China relationship; FIFA World Cup in Qatar;
01:30PM AEDT
21 November 2022

Henry Belot: Well, to get more on this and to discuss a big week of international diplomacy, I spoke with the Shadow Foreign Minister a short time ago. Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining Capital Hill.

Simon Birmingham: Great to be with you again.

Henry Belot: Now we’ve got a lot of foreign policy to discuss, but for now let’s just focus on your role as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. The government has flagged it’s willing for extra sitting hours, potentially extra sitting days to deal with industrial relations. Are you of the mind to give them that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s for the government to manage the legislative program. They set the sitting calendar. They also bring forward the legislation. And so it seems remarkable that having set the calendar themselves, they now find they don’t have enough time and are pleading for more. What’s even more remarkable, though, is that they’re pleading for more to pursue a policy agenda that they did not take to the election. So, they’re trying to rush through industrial relations reforms that are inconsistent with the promises and commitments they made before the last election that have been roundly criticised by business, particularly small business, and are reforms that, if anything, will make difficult economic circumstances and challenges even worse.

Henry Belot: Are they really trying to plead for more time? It’s the crossbench who are saying that they want more time. The Government is saying they’re willing to give that so there can be a real debate about the detail. What’s wrong with that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the crossbench have largely asked for more time for the public, for business groups, for others interested in this reform to actually get across the detail of it. You had the farcical situation where people were being called to give evidence to a Senate committee, having not had time to make formal submissions to actually get across the detail of what a quite wide ranging and complex reforms the Government’s proposing. Now those who have got their heads around them so that these reforms will see higher strike rates, lower productivity, potential job losses, all of that having a bad impact on the economy and potentially exacerbating cost of living pressures.

Henry Belot: So, it certainly sounds like you’re not inclined to support extra sitting hours.

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll consider proposals for extra sitting hours on their merits as the government brings them forward. But when it comes to the industrial relations reforms, we think they’re ill conceived reforms, bad for the country and the nation, that are being rushed through, that the government didn’t take to the election. And so, no, we’re not going to be supporting those sorts of reforms.

Henry Belot: Okay. Let’s switch focus a little bit. The UN climate change conference in Egypt agreed to have some sort of fund to deal with loss and damage, effectively compensation to developing countries as they try and deal with the cost of climate change. Is that something that Australia should be supporting and tipping into?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Australia should always work to make sure that we support, first and foremost the countries who are near and dear to us, our Pacific Island neighbours and friends who we have been providing different climate change assistance and funding to The previous government, put in place hundreds of millions of dollars of direct assistance to those countries and it’s very important that they have guarantees in relation to ongoing support and assistance from Australia in that regard. In terms of this global fund or mechanism. It’s scant on details in terms of what’s come out of the Conference of Parties meeting. So we would need to see over the next couple of years as to what those details are. The government, I don’t think, could tell you today how much Australia would be expected to commit under what terms, how it would be distributed. All of those are fair and reasonable questions and from an Australian perspective, perhaps most importantly, ensuring that there is no dilution of support to our Pacific Island countries who we need to be at the forefront of assisting.

Henry Belot: You mentioned the Pacific there but many of the nations there are calling for this global fund. Wouldn’t signing up to it, embracing this and pushing forward with it, strengthen our ties with them at a time where we really wanted to step up our diplomatic influence?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s important that we do work as closely and in lockstep with them as possible. But I’m also conscious that these sorts of funds and mechanisms can be operating in ways where you don’t have direct control or influence about where the money goes and how it is invested. I want to make sure that we’re Australia is rightly putting money into support for climate adjustment and assistance, that we are able to have absolute confidence that Pacific Island nations are getting the support that they need.

Henry Belot: Just on another issue now, the opposition has been calling for some sort of sanctions on the regime in Iran. Can you give us some more detail on what exactly you’re calling for there? Is it sanctions designed to target individuals or more broadly?

Simon Birmingham: So we’re looking at targeted sanctions, not widespread economic sanctions, and we’re calling for those on the basis of engagement that we’ve had with the Iranian community in Australia, with other advocates who have been highlighting what’s happening in Iran on two fronts in recent months. Firstly, in terms of the human rights abuses that have flowed following the murder of Mahsa Amini and of so many others, which has seen widespread detention crushing in relation to civil activity and protest movements. And what we really want to see there is the government take a strong stance consistent with other nations, along with the fact that we’ve also now seen Iran increase its support for Russia, that weapons flows flowing through to Russia that are being used as part of the awful ongoing war and brutal invasion of Ukraine. So there are multiple levels at which targeted sanctions on the Iranian regime, its leaders, particularly of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, are warranted. And where we are way behind countries like Canada, the EU, many others who have actually acted in this regard.

Henry Belot: The other big issue, of course, last week was the Prime Minister’s meeting with the Chinese President. Why wasn’t a meeting like that possible in the six years before when the Coalition were in power?

Simon Birmingham: Well, what we had to do was confront a range of very difficult situations during different periods of particularly Prime Minister Turnbull and Prime Minister Morrison’s tenure. The Coalition wants a strong relationship with China. We were the government that delivered the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement. We’re the government that saw indeed Chinese leaders come and speak to the Australian Parliament. There was a real desire to make sure it was an effective relationship, but we also, with the government had to respond to changing circumstances by putting in place laws to protect our foreign investment, critical infrastructure, to ensure that foreign interference didn’t undermine our democracy. To ban Huawei from their engagement in telecommunications networks in Australia. These were difficult decisions that were always going to create tensions in the relationship. China sadly exacerbated those tensions by engaging in attempts of economic coercion through the trade sanctions that were in place. I welcome the fact that with the change of government and with perhaps other changes of attitude in China, noting the meetings with President Biden that occurred last week as well. China has come to the table at least to have the dialogue. That’s an important step, one that we’ve always said should have occurred, that China should not have cut off-

Henry Belot: One more issue before we let you go. Senator Birmingham, the FIFA World Cup has started in Qatar. There’s been a lot of controversy, particularly around the country’s handling of the LGBTI community there as well as migrant workers. Was it appropriate for the Australian Government to have an official representative there in the Sports Minister?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Australia is going to play host to the Women’s World Cup and in that regard I think it’s appropriate that we are heavily engaged in understanding the organisation around these events, in making sure that we are well placed for our event, which I have no doubt will be an exemplar to the world in terms of inclusion as well as being a very successful sporting event, is well prepared. So, I can understand the presence there. But I certainly think we should be defending the rights of all those who seek to speak out during the course of the World Cup, whether that be speaking out in relation to human rights in Qatar or whether it indeed be those, for example, about speaking out on those matters of Iran that we were discussing before.

Henry Belot: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.