Topic:  Attempted coup in Russia; Australian support for Ukraine; Voice to Parliament 

06:50AM AEST
Tuesday, 27 June 2022


Emma Rebellato:  But first, Shadow Foreign Minister and Opposition leader in the Senate, Simon Birmingham, joins us now from Adelaide. Good morning to you this morning.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Emma. Good to be with you.


Emma Rebellato: First of all, let’s go through. Vladimir Putin has addressed the nation. He’s tried, attempted to unify Russia, reassert control. What do you make of his address?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the internal machinations of what’s happening in Russia are a matter really for Russians. We’ve seen Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian warlord, rise up against Vladimir Putin, who was very much the creator of this and so many other Russian warlords. But the real harm from all that’s occurring is, of course, now to see the destabilisation within Russia itself. But mostly, of course, the tragic consequences next door in Ukraine, with the huge loss of life and consequential damage and impact to so many families there, along with, of course, big disruptions right around the world in terms of economic and other supply chain impacts, inflationary and the like around the globe. And so the pressures, the damage, the disruption and the destruction is real and it all ultimately falls back on Vladimir Putin and his illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine.


Emma Rebellato: So, Vladimir Putin thanked Belarus for brokering this deal with Prigozhin to stop this attempted mutiny. Even though Prigozhin says it wasn’t a coup, it was merely a protest of what’s happening in Ukraine. Should Australia be taking action against Belarus, which is taking a fairly strong role in this?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Belarus is already part of Australia’s sanctions. When initial sanctions were put in place by the Morrison government, Belarus was part of those sanctions regimes and Australia should be continuing to ensure that every ounce of pressure is applied against Belarus as well as against Russia. The leadership in Russia, the warlords in Russia and of course overall the economic sanctions that have caused pain and disruption in Russia. And we want to make sure those types of pressure points continue. But critically, too, we have to ensure that Australia’s assistance to Ukraine is as effective as possible, meets Ukrainian needs as much as possible. And that’s where we have some concerns that this latest package does fall short.


Emma Rebellato: Well, that’s why I was going to ask you. So the Government’s announced $110 million in assistance for Ukraine. You’re saying it’s too little, too late. So what should the Government be doing instead? What would you be doing if you were in government instead?


Simon Birmingham: Well, in the early stages of this war, the Morrison government provided some $285 million of military assistance, $65 million of humanitarian assistance. There was also the provision of energy assistance, and the military assistance was of modern equipment that Ukraine had asked for, such as the Bushmaster vehicles. We’re concerned that this package involves often older military equipment. It doesn’t seem to address the specific asks that Ukraine had made, such as for the Hawkei military vehicles or the Abhrams tanks or de-mining equipment that can provide humanitarian benefit as well. The humanitarian contribution itself is just $10 million from the Albanese Government compared with that $65 million that had been there previously. So this package feels like it is inadequate and too small and it’s also come far too slowly. The last major commitment was made back in October last year and we have been calling and Ukraine has been pleading even publicly through communications campaigns for months now for additional support. And yet it’s only now been forthcoming and in this more limited nature.


Emma Rebellato: Well, the Government says it’s making these announcements every four months or so. So do you think they should be making a bigger announcement? And how much and how often can we keep contributing to this effort?


Simon Birmingham: The Albanese Government should be constantly reviewing the requests of Ukraine and they should be going back and looking at those specific requests that I mentioned before. In terms of the Hawkei vehicles, the tanks, de-mining equipment and looking carefully at whether they can provide that type of assistance. That is specifically what Ukraine is asking for, rather than the collection of often older vehicles offered this time around. In terms of how much? We have to understand, this isn’t just about Ukraine and us helping a fellow democracy and country in trouble. It’s also about standing up for smaller and mid-sized countries around the world, ensuring that bigger neighbours just don’t get to invade them without consequences, and ensuring that we defend the international rules and laws that we and every other particularly small and mid-sized nation rely upon. And that’s why our partnership with Ukraine and working in tandem with other partner countries across Europe and around the world is so important here.


Emma Rebellato: But Senator, is there a dollar figure that you think is right? I mean, the Government has said before that these Hawkei vehicles aren’t right for this effort. So, is there a dollar figure that the government should be spending?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we think it’s about responding particularly to the equipment. So no, I’m not going to put a precise dollar figure on it because it’s about what you provide. I mean, even the valuation given of the $110 million is probably questionable given we’re talking about a lot of it, quite old equipment and vehicles that are being sent. The Government isn’t replenishing the Australian Defence Force’s budget here and so it’s unsurprising that perhaps the ADF is less inclined to provide its new and modern equipment that’s coming in. But the opportunity is there for the Albanese Government. The Hawkeis are manufactured in Australia, the Bushmasters are manufactured in Australia. We could provide those vehicles which Ukraine says would meet their operational needs and that they want and need. And so we ought to be thinking carefully about their saying that that is what they need for their operational requirements and we could get more of them manufactured here in Australia to replenish those stocks for our own defence forces in the future.


Emma Rebellato: Senator, when we look at issues at home, the Voice referendum is obviously coming up in the next few months. We’ve seen polling suggesting that the no vote is increasing, given the Coalition’s opposition to the Voice and wanting to support a no vote. How do you feel about this? You must be heartened by these results.


Simon Birmingham: Frankly, I’m disappointed that the country finds itself in this situation. I wish that the Government had been able and had done more in the earlier stages to achieve or pursue bipartisanship. I wish there had been greater signs of compromise from the Government and those advising it. In terms of some of the issues that had been raised along the way, particularly debates around the inclusion of executive government within the specific constitutional amendments. There was always a pathway to achieve bipartisan support and hopefully strong national unity around constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. And that’s what I really would have rather seen than a debate that now looks like it’s more likely to divide the nation.


Emma Rebellato: Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining us this morning.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.