Topic:  Prime Minister Modi visit to Australia; Australia-India relationship; Voice to Parliament; Revoking military honours;

Wednesday, 24 May 2023


Patricia Karvelas: Now, India is the biggest country in the world, and Australia has been working to tap into its growing resources through trade, education and defence. I suppose the rock star welcome to its Prime Minister assisted in that. Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.


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


Patricia Karvelas: Today, the Prime Minister will engage in bilateral meetings instead of the intended Quad meeting. What concrete outcomes do you want or expect from these talks?


Simon Birmingham: Prime Minister Albanese and Prime Minister Modi sit down for these bilateral discussions which would have happened alongside the Quad meetings, I’m confident at a time of real high value and engagement in the Australia-India relationship. The previous Coalition government sealed the first ever trade agreement between Australia and India. We deepened areas of defence cooperation. We built the Quad up to a leaders level dialogue, ensuring that we had a deeper engagement with India across the sphere of regional leadership. And so we really do see a strong and rich relationship between Australia and India that should go from strength to strength. I trust that Prime Minister Albanese will be pursuing the expansion of that trade agreement that we sealed. Will be pursuing even deeper areas of defence cooperation and of economic exchange and certainly it’s those types of things that when Peter Dutton and I sit down also this morning with Prime Minister Modi will be making sure he understands there is bipartisan support in Australia for the continued pursuit of a very close and engaging relationship with India.


Patricia Karvelas: The two leaders will be discussing the full free trade deal that you just mentioned after an interim agreement was signed last year. What do you want on the table? What needs to be in that fuller agreement?


Simon Birmingham: Well any full and comprehensive trade agreement that Australia enters into should be one that’s ambitious and seeks to liberalise and open markets as much as possible. And that means removals as far as possible of tariffs and quotas across different industries, particularly sectors that are important to Australia, such as our resources sector and our agriculture sector. But also ensuring as much cooperation in the services trade that is a really growing part of the Australia-India relationship. And indeed just prior to COVID, the last major international trade mission I led, it was the Australia-India Business Exchange where we took more than 100 different Australian business and industry leaders with us. And it included sectors like education and our financial services sector and they indicate the strength of services, interest in the Indian market and we need to keep growing that as well as opening up investment flows. There are huge opportunities for Australian superannuation funds in India, as we would hope from an Australian perspective to see major Indian companies continue to look and invest at opportunities in Australia that further integrate our economies and grow job opportunities for Australians.


Patricia Karvelas: You mentioned that you’ll be meeting with the Indian Prime Minister as well, Peter Dutton, also later this morning. One of the big issues that’s emerged is this idea that the Prime Minister should raise human rights issues with the Indian Prime Minister. Given you’re also having an audience, will you be doing it?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, my view is that Australia should always be consistent and predictable when it comes to how we apply our values in the world. And of course our values are our own. We don’t get to control what happens in any other country, but we should ensure that that we at least convey the type of approach we think that is important in relation to upholding democratic values that we share with India and that we often promote as part of those shared values. And we’d underscore that as an important part of our shared interest in how we engage both at home and abroad.


Patricia Karvelas: Well, that’s a very broad statement, but I’m asking about the specifics. India’s biggest supplier of weapons is Russia. The Deputy Prime Minister yesterday told me the government is confident that India is strategically aligned with Australia. Will you raise the issue of Russia with the Indian Prime Minister?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I expect that and it will be a short discussion, I imagine that Peter Dutton and I will have. But it’s welcome that Prime Minister Modi is giving us that opportunity. We’ll be wanting to prioritise the areas of bilateral cooperation between Australia and India and how we pursue that. Of course, as part of a very contested global environment, Russia’s actions are reprehensible at present. There have been certain steps and statements made by India in terms of acknowledging the pressures there and engagement that’s been had in terms of their consideration of the situation in Ukraine and that’s to be welcomed. If we get the chance to encourage their consideration of those difficulties and support Ukraine, then I’m sure we will do so. But there are many topics on the list to encourage in terms of our bilateral relations.


Patricia Karvelas: Yeah. Look, the reason I raise it is because the Opposition has been really very strong in saying that with China these issues should be raised and the question I keep hearing, particularly from listeners, is, well, why isn’t the same standard put on India? Do you understand that critique?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I can understand. I think almost all analysts would say China has a far greater influence over Russia than India would have in terms of their strategic support. It is between China and Russia that the commitment was made just prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, of friendship without limits. And I think it is within that sphere that it is right for the world to look to Beijing to play as strong a leadership role as it can to get Russia to cease its horrific invasion of Ukraine and the terrible outcomes that it’s having.


Patricia Karvelas: A group of protesters also gathered at the event last night where the prime minister of India was at accusing Modi of egregious human rights abuses and raising these issues of human rights abuses and being very, very vocal about that. Should the Australian Government raise these accusations with the Indian Prime Minister?


Simon Birmingham: We do need to realise there are many fora opportunities the Australian Government has in terms of multilateral fora where we participate always through different human rights analyses that are undertaken at the UN and elsewhere, and we are a very consistent engager in that regard. The Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar has visited Australia multiple times this year and so today is not a day where I will judge Prime Minister Albanese or our engagement on whether every single issue of concern is raised. It’s a day to advance our shared interests, bilateral interests, our regional interests, but also, as I said, to ensure that we make statements that are consistent with our principles as a country. That’s what I trust the government will be doing. And it’s the approach that we’ll take insofar as we get that opportunity to.


Patricia Karvelas: I want to move to another issue which has been dominating the Parliament at least this week, and that’s the Voice to Parliament referendum proposal. Your leader Peter Dutton says the model will re-racialise Australia. Do you agree with that? Will it re-racialise Australia?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I expect there will be many things said in the context of the Voice debate. I’ve written a longish piece in relation to my stance on this, which I’ve said is somewhat nuanced, and I’ve indicated I don’t intend to either act contrary to the party decision on this, but nor do I intend to actively or aggressively campaign on it. I’ll have a single vote in the referendum, as will each and every Australian, and mine is equal to each and every Australian, and I will simply encourage everyone to engage as respectfully as possible in this debate and to ensure that they consider and weigh the principles in relation to constitutional recognition, the principles in relation to how a Voice may operate, and of course the details as to the implications for our Constitution and how it will be affected by this change. Clearly many Australians of good intent come to different conclusions on that. But, ultimately the people of Australia will be the ones who decide this now.


Patricia Karvelas: That’s absolutely right. But with respect, you didn’t answer my question, will it re-racialise Australia?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m not going to spend my time between now and the referendum commenting on the comments of-.


Patricia Karvelas: It’s your leader though and it was his main- He’s not just- I’m going to politely push back a little bit here. You say not comment on the comments of people in this debate. He’s the leader of the Liberal Party. He is the Opposition Leader. It’s not just some bit player. He’s a really key person on your side of politics. He’s your leader and he says it will re-racialise Australia. Do you agree with him?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, and I have outlined the approach I’m taking to this referendum and the campaign, and that’s the approach I’m going to stick to.


Patricia Karvelas: So you don’t agree with him?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I’m not going to let you play those word games with me. I’ve outlined my approach-.


Patricia Karvelas: I’m not trying to play word games. It’s a really big, big statement for him to say the idea of re-racialising Australia. You either agree or you disagree.


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, many people will have many things that are said during this debate. I hope that they are all said as respectfully and considered as possible. Peter made a long contribution as Leader in terms of his speech on this bill. Everybody is entitled to be able to go and read that, see it all in the context in which those arguments were put.


Patricia Karvelas: The Australian Electoral Commissioner yesterday told Senate Estimates he’s seen a regrettable increase in threatening commentary and rising disinformation on The Voice, and ASIO boss Mike Burgess says he anticipates the voice debate could trigger some spontaneous violence. Does that alarm you?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it does alarm me. Unfortunately, we see right around the world and in democratic countries that the rise of social media, the rise of other influencers has, I think, an often negative effect. People hide behind the cloak of anonymity. It stirs up reactions in ways that are unhealthy. And that’s why, as I said before, I urge everybody who is going to be an active participant in this debate to do so in ways that consider the facts, outline them in as calm a possible way and ensure that so far as we can, we keep this debate very much one that is respectful. I know that as we went through the same sex marriage plebiscite on which I had very strong and public views on that one, that there were concerns about the way that debate would ensue. And although I know it was a difficult one for many across Australia, ultimately I think it was overwhelmingly conducted in a respectful way and certainly the vast, vast majority of Australians did. And I hope we can see the same through the Voice referendum.


Patricia Karvelas: Just a quick one on another issue, a story that was in AM this morning. The ABC has revealed Defence Chief Angus Campbell has launched another attempt to revoke some military honours awarded from Afghanistan following the war crimes inquiry. Do you support this move?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it’s for the Government to clearly explain what decisions have been taken, upon what evidence and the justification for it. I heard on AM some of the comments from the RSL in particular who weren’t saying this was necessarily the wrong decision, but they were saying that it needed transparency, accountability from government. It’s important that if these types of decisions are being taken, they follow right through the chain of command and that there is that type of transparency from government.


Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham, always a pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks for coming on.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia. My pleasure.