Topics:  Protest closing West Gate Bridge; Coalition energy plan; Nuclear energy; ASEAN summit; Home Affairs funding cuts; 

08:45AM AEDT
5 March 2024



Raf Epstein:  Simon Birmingham joins us. He is the Shadow Minister for Foreign affairs. He’s one of the Liberal Senators for South Australia as well. Good morning.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning Raf. Great to be with you again.


Raf Epstein: What do you make of the protest that’s shutting down significant bits of traffic in Melbourne?


Simon Birmingham: Raf, I think this type of action, whilst recognising everybody’s right to protest this type of action, is thoughtless and pointless, bordering on the counterproductive. It’s thoughtless for the impact that it has on thousands and thousands of Victorians. And it’s pointless because it’s not going to have an impact on the policies of the South East Asian nation leaders who are here or, frankly, of Australia. And nor is it about to raise awareness of an issue like climate change, of which there is already an enormous awareness and understanding in Australia. But it is going to, in the counter-productive sense, just drive further divisiveness of people who see protesters like this and think of it as an extremist action rather than an important, serious mainstream policy consideration.


Raf Epstein: One way to look at the government you were a part of, though, is that, I mean, you completely failed on climate. That was the issue that sort of chewed you up and spat you out as a government. So, part of their frustration is about your time in government and your inability to deliver, isn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: Raf, politically, I’ve acknowledged that that we had problems and that that did indeed lead to our political demise. Policy terms. If you have a look at Australia’s emissions and how they trended down over that time, indeed, we did oversee a period of significant investment in clean energy, of significant reduction in Australia’s emissions, and they were important achievements. But of course, there is much more to be done to achieve net zero. And I want to make sure that we do that. You can see from some of the stories at present that we are having hard, tough decisions and discussions within the Liberal and National parties at present about how you track the pathway to net zero, including previously unspoken topics in Australia, like the questions around nuclear energy.


Raf Epstein: You know the well, I might come to nuclear energy, but the Nationals don’t even want to commit to the emissions goals you had in government. That’s a problem, isn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: Raf, it’s important that we make sure that we have a credible pathway to net zero, and that is not negotiable in my mind to achieving that net zero within the commitment time frame we’ve made by 2050. To make sure that within that, we honour the Paris Agreement commitments, to have five yearly updates around that progress and that we set targets to towards achieving it.


Raf Epstein: Just on. You did mention nuclear power. Isn’t that precisely the problem the protesters are pointing towards you. Your side of politics it seems obsessed with the most expensive option. The one that takes the longest time to build. Isn’t- aren’t you? Isn’t that policy precisely the problem they’re talking about?


Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not, Raf. And the reason we are looking at this is because there are three things you’ve got to achieve in the energy market. One is absolute reliability for all users so that industry and others can invest in our country. The next is lowest possible energy generation cost for households and for everybody.


Raf Epstein: Nuclear’ s gone there, isn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: Hang on. We’ll come back to that, Raf. And the third is, of course, ensuring that you have something that is credible for achieving net zero. Now, the challenge that we all see is how you actually achieve the mix of all three reliability, low cost and net zero. And making sure you’ve got an energy mix that can do that. Now, the question is always when you don’t have maximum reliability from a renewables only pathway, what is the way in which you bridge the gap at the end to ensure that you have that reliability and you get net zero, and you do so still at lower cost. For many countries, indeed, we’re the only G20 nation to either not have nuclear or not be looking in terms of our policy mixes as to the role nuclear can play in a net zero mix. So we are, as a country, quite out of step with the rest of the world-


Raf Epstein: We’re not really. Simon Birmingham, I appreciate your time. So, I want to leave us some time to talk about ASEAN. But if I can just ask one more question about the nuclear option. There is. There has not been an independent review of nuclear energy that’s recommended it. That happened under your government. It happened under this government. CSIRO, parliamentary committees. There’s no independent review that thinks it’s the right option. This looks a lot like a refusal to talk about the real thing and talking about a fantasy.


Simon Birmingham: Raf, will detail the policy that we’re going to take to the next election, and we’ll be able to have more substantive discussions about what that policy is. But I can also flip your question and say, why is it that that in the global environment we have with so many countries pursuing nuclear, with Australia’s capabilities in that space and our reserves of uranium and our need to get to net zero, that we would have a prohibition on this technology, why shouldn’t we at least have a technology neutral approach where businesses and investors aren’t told not to even consider this option, but where there is an open approach to looking at whether it can provide the reliability to bridge the gap between renewables and having certainty and reliability for industry in our grid, make up and certainty that we can credibly achieve net zero, not find that there is a significant gap left at the end of the renewables pathway if we are to have that reliability in our grid as well.


Raf Epstein: If I can just update people. Simon Birmingham, we’re watching live footage on the TV. The police are now using a cherry picker to get onto the roof of this truck of protesters. So, they’re talking to them. So that may wrap up. Simon Birmingham as the Shadow Minister for Foreign affairs. There’s this huge meeting happening in Melbourne. I don’t know how many Melburnians are aware of it. But if you are a foreign minister, like, how would you explain why this meeting even matters? Why does it matter what is being discussed at ASEAN?


Simon Birmingham: So, our relations with the South East Asian nations, the ten nations that make up ASEAN plus Timor-Leste who is on a pathway to joining. Is really critical to how we have regional stability and prosperity. Now, this is the second Australia ASEAN Special Summit. The first was hosted by Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop. We welcome the fact there’s real continuity in terms of the policy of engagement with these nations here. And it’s critical because we face opportunities, huge opportunities in this region in terms of the potential for further economic growth, further lifting of people across the region out of poverty, as well as opportunities for Australia and the trade and investment relations with fast growing South East Asian economies. But it’s also critical in terms of how we confront the challenges in our region, increasing use of influence and power, militarily and otherwise, by China, and the need for us to work with South East Asian nations to keep our region open, stable, free shipping channels and the types of things we rely on for many of our existing trading relations, be it with North Asian economies and elsewhere, all of which flows through those South East Asian waterways.


Raf Epstein: And just in the time I’ve got left, your party didn’t win in Dunkley. Isn’t one of the problems that you say things that aren’t true? Peter Dutton and others said that funding for Home Affairs was cut. It wasn’t cut. It was added to. Isn’t that one of the problems you have? You’re just saying things that aren’t real.


Simon Birmingham: No, no, Raf and I don’t accept the proposition you’re putting on either front there. In terms of the overall proposition-.


Raf Epstein: The budget papers don’t lie.


Simon Birmingham: Well, Raf, these matters were explored pretty clearly in Senate Estimates. There were clear concessions that there were reductions in the type of growth that was expected to Home Affairs funding, that this has an impact in terms of Border Force and their operations, and indeed, their leadership acknowledged that in the Senate Estimates process, where this-


Raf Epstein: Their leadership came out and said you were wrong. They said they came out and said you were wrong in the middle of a by election. That doesn’t sound like a good way to run a campaign.


Simon Birmingham: Well, Raf, these issues to say were extensively canvassed in Senate Estimates. It is clear that decisions were taken that reduce the budget allocations for Home Affairs, for border protection. And there are real challenges there in terms of the operational impact that has and that we do have reductions in relation to some of those surveillance activities that have previously been able to identify threats before they reach the Australian mainland.


Raf Epstein: I need to leave there. Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time as the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. The protesters are talking to police on top of that truck.