Topics:  Online safety; Middle East conflict; Parliamentarian job sharing; 

08:05AM AEST
22 April 2024


Michael Rowland:  The Federal Government and Opposition are united this morning in calls for more action on misinformation and harm in the wake of the stabbing attacks in Sydney. Elon Musk has vowed to challenge an order for X, formerly known as Twitter, to take down graphic footage of last week’s attack in Wakeley. Joining me now to talk about this and other issues is the shadow foreign affairs minister, Simon Birmingham in Sydney. Simon Birmingham, very good morning to you.


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


Michael Rowland: Great to have you on board. What realistically can any national government do and in terms of taking on these social media giants?


Simon Birmingham: Michael, there’s no doubt that taking on the social media giants is a big task. It requires governments of courage. It requires governments to persevere and to continue to change with the times. In government, we established the eSafety Commissioner, passed the Online Safety Act, put in place provisions for takedown notices as well as penalties for application where these are ignored. But of course, these things cannot be set and forget in a world of ever evolving technology. And if you think about the way social media companies can manage to use algorithms and technology to target information coming to our devices, then they absolutely should be able to quickly and effectively remove content that is damaging and devastating to the social harmony and fabric of society, particularly images such as terrorist attacks. We should expect that we should demand it, and we will certainly back the government to put in place the types of powers or penalties that make social media companies pay attention.


Michael Rowland: We have Elon Musk, the owner of X, formerly known as Twitter, pushing back, accusing the government of censorship. What do you say to those arguments?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s a completely ridiculous and preposterous argument. The type of standards that we expect in everyday life that we expect in other forms of media should be able to be applied to the online world as well. The idea that it is censorship to say that imagery of a terrorist attack, of a stabbing incident should not be able to be broadcast in an unfiltered way for all to see – children to access and otherwise – is an insulting and offensive argument. It is also an irresponsible one when you consider the implications that can have for inspiring potentially future terrorists, for creating discord and disharmony in communities and driving people further apart when such images are manipulated or used with propaganda or other information.


Michael Rowland: Turning to other issues, global affairs and in your capacity as foreign affairs spokesman for the Coalition, it appears, hopefully, that Israel and Iran have stepped back from the abyss, from the brink over the weekend. But clearly a good sign for regional stability as it stands over there.


Simon Birmingham: Nobody wants to see conflict widen and the potential for a far greater conflict to occur, so that is welcome. But the world should also be very clear eyed about Iran. Iran is a rogue state and should be treated as such. Iran has spent years trying to develop a nuclear weapons program, establish long-range ballistic missile capabilities. They are the leading sponsor of terrorism through Hamas, who of course instigated the current conflict so tragically back on October 7th, as well as support for Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels. And ultimately, Iran needs to be held to account by the world and every effort to apply the tightest possible economic and other sanctions and restrictions on Iran, along with critically listing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who Iran use as their number one sponsor and supporter of terrorism, that should be recognised and listed the IRGC as a terrorist entity. The US has done so. Australia and other similar nations should follow suit.


Michael Rowland: Equally, as you know, there are persistent calls for Israel to be held to account regarding the conflict in Gaza. I turned to news overnight that the US is seriously considering sanctions against a unit of the Israeli Defence Force, accused of serious human rights violations in Gaza. Would you support such a move like that?


Simon Birmingham: We’ve always said that Israel should operate and have regard to international law and particularly international humanitarian law, and we continue to stand by that. We do, though, wish to see Israel given the support to remove Hamas as a terrorist threat from Gaza. No country could live with that type of threat right on its border given the atrocities that occurred on October 7th. But that should be done and undertaken with care and with regard to the need for humanitarian support and assistance to reach people in Gaza, and certainly with regard to international law.


Michael Rowland: Okay, finally, back to domestic politics. We had on the show earlier, Lucy Bradlow and Bronwyn Bock are planning to run jointly as candidates for the Melbourne seat of Higgins, currently held by a Labor MP, arguing that job sharing amongst MPs if they’re elected should become more common like it is in other workplaces. What do you think of their proposed move?


Simon Birmingham: Michael, it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for the way in which our democracy was established. The idea that you have representative democracy is to vest that in an individual that is an age-old proposition. It requires an individual to exercise their judgement, but also to be able to do so consistently. I think if you think about how many of the smaller parties and others have operated over recent years, we often get in – the most recent example was Jacqui Lambie and Tammy Tyrrell, two members supposedly of the same party elected, but then they go their separate ways during the course of the parliament.  Because they have legitimate disagreements in how they work together or the issues they stand for. It just doesn’t work to have a member of Parliament split in two as two different individuals, and then expect they’re going to be able to operate in consensus and deliver the type of consistency that’s required.


Michael Rowland: Shouldn’t a Parliament representative, the symbol of our representative democracy, Simon Birmingham, evolve with changing times? Let’s not forget, women were at one stage banned from running for office.


Simon Birmingham: Well, and that was completely unacceptable. As the person from the state [South Australia] that was the first in the world to give women the right to run for office and the second in the world to give women the vote. I’m very proud of those types of reforms, but I think this is a very different type of proposition that does go to the fundamental of how that representative democracy, single member electorates in particular, were established. You can have multi-member electorate systems, and we have that in the way the Senate works. And that is a very clear model as to how a multi-member system can operate in Australia. We get that in our upper house, but in our lower house it is premised on the basis that you have a single member in an electorate, and that single member is expected to exercise their judgement, but to apply a continuity that is just impossible if you had a different person turning up for work one week to the next.


Michael Rowland: Okay, we’ll see how it plays out. Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Michael. My pleasure.