Topics: Protests; Israel-Gaza conflict; Stage three tax cuts;

09:25AM AEDT
23 January 2024



Raf Epstein:  Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Minister and Senator for South Australia. Welcome.


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


Raf Epstein: We’ve had these significant protests in our port and also a protest at the tennis last night that interrupted one of the games. What do you make of that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Australians, of course, have a right to protest, but I would urge everybody to protest in ways that don’t disrupt the activities of others, that particularly don’t disrupt our economy, that don’t act in ways that also are in any way creating a sense that another part of the Australian community is being targeted or victimised in any way either. So of course, we recognise the right to free speech, that there are strong views on these sorts of issues-.


Raf Epstein: Kind of have to disrupt what’s going on. That’s kind of the point of a protest, isn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, you can make your voice heard and seen in ways that don’t disrupt the actual undertaking of a major sporting event. People can see and hear and feel a protest as they walk past one on entry into an event. As they walk past one on the steps of Parliament House, they can see it in ways that are impactful without creating the type of disruption.


Raf Epstein: Sometimes, as some people in the Coalition have described some of the protesters as Hamas sympathisers. You’ve targeted the government over things like Penny Wong not going to specific sites in Israel. Is the Coalition seeking political advantage instead of seeking some sort of common ground on a divisive issue?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we had common ground where he came as a parliament together immediately after the October 7th attacks, and passed a parliamentary motion that had Coalition support, government support. It was a negotiated between the Prime Minister and Peter Dutton, Penny Wong and myself, and we see that as being the common ground that we should all be standing by. And it is very clear in its condemnation of Hamas. It’s very clear in Israel’s inherent right to self-defence. And yes, I’ve been critical of aspects such as the Albanese Government, on the one hand, indeed, on the same day, issuing a joint statement with Canada and New Zealand that in many ways reiterated the points in that motion. But then at the United Nations, not actually voting consistent with those words in that motion but voting for a very weak motion at the UN in relation to cease fire, but without the type of recognition of Israel’s right to self-defence and without the need for Hamas to be clearly disabled as part of those terms. And it’s those inconsistencies that we have been clear to highlight whereas our position has been very clear cut and consistent and consistent with that bipartisan motion originally struck.


Raf Epstein: Are they inconsistencies or are you seeking political advantage? Because there’s no doubt that I mean, having a go at the government about, you know, its various detailed statements on Israel. That doesn’t help us come together as a community, does it? It sort of divides us rather than unites us, doesn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s the Government who have made these actions, and it’s our job as an opposition to scrutinise those. I believe we are being completely consistent with the position laid down following the atrocities of October 7th.


Raf Epstein: You haven’t mentioned any of the deaths, what some call it really excessive deaths in Gaza in retaliation for October 7th. Shouldn’t you?


Simon Birmingham: Every innocent loss of life is a tragedy. There are many occasions where you see the footage and think of the consequences, and it pulls at the heartstrings, and it is an awful consequence of warfare, and it’s a consequence of warfare in all too many places around the world and that includes the tragic loss of innocent Palestinian lives-


Raf Epstein: Can I just interrupt? Is it just a consequence, though? I mean, there’s lots of numbers there. They’re much higher numbers than America’s in efforts in significant battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. I mean, it’s more than 1% of the population. Does any of that concern the Coalition?


Simon Birmingham: We want to see Israel act in ways that minimise civilian casualties as much as possible. We wish to see humanitarian access reach those who genuinely need it. But of course, as I stressed before, a ceasefire would best be achieved by Hamas terrorists laying down their arms and surrendering their leadership positions within Gaza and releasing those hostages, and that would be the best way to achieve an enduring ceasefire that removes the type of terrorist threat that is there and removes the pressure on the Palestinian people, who, of course, are used by Hamas as human shields who have built their tunnel networks and their military infrastructure and their terrorist infrastructure under the type of civilian assets that tragically, Palestinian people use and live in and therefore are exposed to because of the way Hamas is [interrupted] terrorist infrastructure.


Raf Epstein: Is anything that Israel has done over the top in your mind? Anything.


Simon Birmingham: Well, they will no doubt be, and there is consistent scrutiny there. Now, I’m not going to judge one military strike or another during the course of this conflict. That is something that other experts with far greater knowledge of the details will do. But it is clear that the war that is underway at present was sparked by Hamas’s actions on October 7th. There was effectively a ceasefire on October 6th and prior to that. But on October 7th, when there was the largest number of Jews killed on a single day since the Holocaust and done in barbaric ways, targeting babies and children and others, everything changed and that sparked the war and conflict. Now it is a tragedy that so many lives have been lost and so many innocent lives, be they Israeli lives or Palestinian lives. One is not more equal than another when it comes to the innocent individuals, and particularly those children or others who are impacted. We would all wish to see an end to the conflict. But we shouldn’t just wish an end to the conflict that then sees a repeat of the terrorist atrocities occur again in weeks, months, or years’ time. We should wish to see an end to the conflict that provides for stability, security and a pathway for Israelis and Palestinians to be able to live more peacefully together in the future.


Raf Epstein: Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Minister, part of Peter Dutton’s team. Foreign affairs obviously important. But Simon Birmingham, so much speculation about. I don’t know, some potential change or addition to the stage three tax cuts. If the government gives extra tax cuts to people on a lower income, I don’t know, shifting a threshold discount on Medicare levy a little bit more help with energy bill relief. The Coalition before that, a bit more money for people on middle and lower incomes.


Simon Birmingham: We’ll have to see what the government does. It needs to act in ways that don’t fuel inflation, that are targeted and responsible, but also consistent with the promises that the government took to the last election and has continued to make since the last election. So, we’ll be judging all of that. It feels as if Anthony Albanese is limbering up to break the promises in relation to stage three tax cuts that-


Raf Epstein: They can add to them.


Simon Birmingham: He could add to them, and we’ll have to see if he does what those additions are and what the consequences of those are. So, we’ll be looking carefully at this. It seems remarkable that the government is basically casting a net out for ideas in some ways as to how they’re behaving, rather than showing leadership there. That this concept, they’re bringing their caucus back to Canberra to gather ideas from them, rather than actually having a plan in place. Cost of living pressures for Australians aren’t new, and they’ve been evident and getting worse under the Albanese Government, as interest rates have risen again and again and again-


Raf Epstein: Isn’t it a good idea? Isn’t it a good idea for a political leader to talk to his team when he’s contemplating change? Isn’t that like, isn’t that bringing people along with you?


Simon Birmingham: Sure, you should always be talking to your team. But this has been portrayed as a bringing them together for a bit of an ideas gathering summit. Now, maybe it’ll be proved to be different. Maybe it’s been portrayed by the government in ways that is actually not what it is. My suspicion is that this is a gathering of the Labor caucus that is more about the theatre of it than the content of it, and perhaps the government will simply lay down a foregone conclusion to the Labor caucus, in which case it will have all been about theatrics rather than substance.


Raf Epstein: Sometimes it does seem in Australia that we expect, I don’t know, a sort of Scandinavian level of government services, but to get that at a discount, low level of paying tax like they do in America, do you think we’re like that sometimes?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I think, people want the best for themselves and their families and of course, everybody will judge that through their own lens. Governments have to make difficult decisions as to how they prioritise. This government, I have seen make decisions that seem to be putting more structural spending in over the years ahead, and that is a challenge and a threat to the budget. But it should also show regard and respect for the promises that it made to the Australian people. And those promises included keeping the stage three tax cuts that were part of a package legislated by the previous government, a package to deal with bracket creep, which has gotten only worse in the last couple of years. We now have twice as many Australians paying at the top income tax bracket than was the case when that bracket was last changed. That’s why adjustments there are fair to reflect the fact that many, many Australians have been pushed up into those tax brackets even as their wages haven’t kept up with inflation.


Raf Epstein: Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Minister, part of Peter Dutton’s team, and one of the senators, Liberal senators for South Australia, Simon Birmingham, thanks so much.


Simon Birmingham: Always a pleasure, Raf. Thank you.