TopicsAnniversary of invasion of Ukraine; Australian support for Ukraine; Voice to Parliament;

08:35AM AEDT
24 February 2023

Tom Oriti: We are joined by Simon Birmingham, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. Good morning. Thank you very much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Tom. It’s great to be with you.

Tom Oriti: Can I ask you first, when Russia launched its invasion against Ukraine, you know, this time a year ago, a bit later in the day for us, of course. Did you imagine that the war would reach this point a year later?

Simon Birmingham: I am surprised by the resilience, the strength, the heroic approach that the Ukrainian people have shown. There were many military commentators, people better versed and skilled than I in terms of military tactics and strategies who thought this would be a quick conflict and unfortunately a brutal one for Ukraine. However, Russia has been unable to prevail and much of that goes down to the leadership of President Zelensky and the absolute fighting willpower that we have seen from the Ukrainian people. And that’s why we all need to continue to make sure that we stand firm with them. It’s a poignant day, some 12 months on from that invasion to recognise and remember the tragic loss of life of children, of women, of soldiers, of so many people, the destruction of so much infrastructure, critical infrastructure, the barbarism that Russia has shown in targeting civilian infrastructure like electricity networks and the like, but also a day to recognise that Ukraine has not just defended its territory, but in doing so has defended principles of sovereignty, of international rule of law and of standing up for the types of things we in Australia value like our freedoms and democracy.

Tom Oriti: Now the Opposition says the Federal Government needs to do all it can in this space. The overall commitment Australia has made to Ukraine’s war effort now half a billion dollars. A lot of people point out our contribution is significant outside the NATO’s countries. Are you satisfied with that commitment at the moment?

Simon Birmingham: The previous Coalition government did position Australia as one of the largest non-NATO contributors, and we did so across a range of pillars. Military support, also humanitarian support, support for Ukraine’s energy needs and putting in place measures to support Ukrainians who were fleeing in terms of visa access and the types of support they receive in Australia. And we do think it’s absolutely critical for the Albanese Government to continue to provide those types of support because we’re not just, as I said before, standing up for Ukraine and its territory, but standing up for important international principles-

Tom Oriti: Sorry to interrupt, but you’re saying that you started this off. If Labor is carrying on your government’s legacy, so to speak, in this space. Just to my question, are you satisfied with the commitment that the government is making now, though, or should we be pledging more?

Simon Birmingham: I welcome the additional commitment. I don’t want to put any caveats around that. Each and every additional element of support is welcome. We’ll continue to seek information and briefings from government, where appropriate, to understand the scale of that commitment. I do say that it is important that we make sure where we’re making these pledges and promises, they are swiftly delivered. There have been various times where conversations about the extent of the promises, such as for the Bush masters, are taking some time to get to Ukraine. Now, of course, there are big logistical challenges and these things need to be done in conjunction with the Ukrainian military and according to their program and their needs as much as possible. But we have to make sure that it’s delivered and delivered as quickly and swiftly as possible. And I do urge the government to make sure that there aren’t delays in that regard.

Tom Oriti: Did you think that’s actually happening, that we had a Ukrainian member of parliament on the program about an hour ago who was full of nothing but praise about getting the Bushmasters. So are you concerned that there has been a delay in the government’s commitments, though? We’re certainly not hearing that from the Ukrainian end.

Simon Birmingham: The Bushmaster that have been nothing but welcomed in Ukraine and indeed have been celebrated for their effectiveness on the ground. But in terms of the pace and speed against the number that we have promised as a nation, there are questions about just how many we’ve got there and as quickly as possible. So, of course, Ukraine is grateful for what they have received. We just want to, as a Coalition, make sure that the promises are delivered and delivered as swiftly as possible. And so whether it’s the Bushmaster or the new drones, the Government needs to be making sure that they are deploying our equipment that is being pledged and promised in the fastest possible way.

Tom Oriti: As you say do, acknowledging, of course, the logistical challenges there in delivering them. But can I ask you as well, that’s the financial commitment and I guess armaments, the Bushmaster. What about the sanctions? Penny Wong’s announced further financial sanctions, 90 people, 40 Russian entities, more than 1000 people sanctioned in total now. Do you think those additional sanctions go far enough, Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: In some ways, Tom, we can never go far enough when it comes to the pressure on Russia. We should be deploying all possible tools in terms of financial and economic pressures that can be deployed against the Russian leadership, the Russian oligarchs and all of those who are responsible for this illegal and immoral invasion. So again, we warmly welcome an extension further of those sanctions, the targeting of more individuals, and particularly the targeting of more entities. But there must be a constant vigilance and a constant attempt to find other international partners beyond those at the forefront who are willing to step up and put more pressure on Russia. We need to see Russia end this. They need to be forced to the peace table because that is what we all ultimately want to see. And so that means encouraging not just the nations like ourselves, our traditional likeminded have been applying sanctions, but strong, concerted diplomatic efforts around the world to encourage other nations to bring that pressure to bear, and in particular, for China to do more and do all that it can to urge Russia to cease this activity.

Tom Oriti: Well, there’s lots of question marks around that at the moment. But just note some remarks from Peter Dutton this morning. Opposition Leader still no confirmation on whether our embassy will reopen in Kyiv from neighbouring Poland. The Opposition is calling for the embassy to reopen. I do note that when the Coalition was in government it did turn down an offer to reopen in Kyiv alongside the British Embassy. If this is important now, why didn’t we re-establish our presence back then?

Simon Birmingham: They were very early days still in the conflict. So many embassies relocated in those very early days. Some began the process of relocating. Of course, we were into caretaker mode for much of that time. So as time has moved on, we’ve seen the overwhelming majority of embassies now reopen in Kiev. And Australia should be able to find a means to do likewise. We have been able to operate in some very difficult circumstances. Our embassies over the years in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and the symbolism and the practical benefit in terms of the briefings, the information that can be received and being an effective conduit and representative for Australia all mean that greater effort should be put on reopening that embassy. The government should find a way, should be able to partner, whether it’s with the Brits, the Canadians or others, to ensure that we have that line of engagement covered off as well.

Tom Oriti: Okay. Simon Birmingham, just another issue, if you don’t mind. You’ve said you support the Voice to Parliament in principle, but you don’t want an absence of detail leading it to fail or for taxpayer money to be wasted on yes or no campaigns. I just want to ask you, because we keep hearing about these demands for detail. Is asking for detail too onerous before a referendum happens, given that there would surely be time to flesh out the idea after it’s held, what’s holding you back from committing to a yes vote?

Simon Birmingham: Tom, I come at this from not wanting to see a proposal put and fail. I think that would be detrimental to the Australian national interest, would be detrimental to the cause of reconciliation. And so I look at it in terms of what’s going to give it the best chance of success. And right now uncertainty over the legal implications of the question and the constitutional changes that are being proposed, specifically those around the inclusion of executive government need greater clarity, probably need tightening up to ensure that that doesn’t see a wave of uncertainty run across this debate and cause people to vote no and reasonable questions about just how consultation will occur, what consultation will happen on. I think many Australians will want those answered before they’re willing to give a yes vote. And so if we want to see it succeed, then the Government really does need to do more to provide those answers.

Tom Oriti: Sure. Sorry to interrupt before, but just what I wanted to ask though, is, is it isn’t asking questions like that and saying we need to be more detail and bringing up things like the legal implications. You say you want to give this the best chance of success. Isn’t that just adding to the cloud of uncertainty among the Australian public, prompting more people to ask questions and casting doubt over the legitimacy of this?

Simon Birmingham: Tom, people are asking those questions. I could fall silent on the matter. Peter Dutton could fall silent on the matter. That wouldn’t stop the questions being asked and the absence of answers is only going to see more Australians adopt an approach of if I don’t understand it, if the Government won’t explain it to me, then I’m not willing to vote for it. And that is the greatest threat to success.

Tom Oriti: Are you confident people are asking those questions though, or is it the Opposition asking those questions? Are you confident the broader Australian public is asking those questions?

Simon Birmingham: I’m confident the Australian public is asking those questions. I’m also confident that there are others in the political space who would be asking those questions, who are and whose voices would be heard more loudly if it wasn’t for me doing so. Now I’m responding because you’ve asked me the questions this morning about this. But I do think that to give the greatest chance of success for a referendum, you need to remove as much uncertainty as possible. Right now, there’s uncertainty surrounding aspects of the proposed constitutional change itself in terms of the debate about just how broad the powers on executive government would make the question and present potential for challenge in the future. And there is also the degree of debate about the operational and legislative aspects that yes, will ultimately have to be sorted by the Parliament. But people do want to understand how it’s going to engage and the scope of that engagement, which I think really is a not unreasonable question to be answered and to be answered with some precision before asking Australians to vote.

Tom Oriti: Okay. Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us. Appreciate your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.