Topic: Australian support for Ukraine; Voice to Parliament; Former Russian embassy site;
Tuesday, 27 June 2022
Patricia Karvelas: Welcome to the program.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Patricia. Good to be with you again.
Patricia Karvelas: You’ve said this package took too long and it’s too little. There’s a $110 million for military vehicles, artillery, ammunition and some humanitarian support. What specifically would you have offered instead?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we can contrast this with the fact that the Morrison government at the early stages of this conflict provided some $285 million of military assistance, plus $65 million of humanitarian assistance, plus many millions of dollars more in energy assistance to Ukraine. And at the time, the military assistance provided was also modern equipment that Ukraine was asking for. Now we’re getting a situation where the Government is not really directly responding to Ukraine’s requests for the Hawkei vehicles or the Abhrams tanks, nor the de-mining equipment they’ve asked for. And their contribution in terms of humanitarian assistance is simply $10 million compared with the $65 million that had been provided previously. And so this is a concern that Australia’s status as the leading non-NATO contributor to Ukraine has slipped away and that the type of support being offered now doesn’t seem to be either meeting Ukraine’s requests, providing the modern equipment that they want or need, nor of the type of scale that would seem to keep Australia commensurate with the support of our other partners.
Patricia Karvelas: So, what more would you have provided if you were in power?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we would be urging the Government to be looking specifically again at the types of requests Ukraine has made, the equipment they are asking for.
Patricia Karvelas: So, you’re saying do what Ukraine asks for?
Simon Birmingham: Well, certainly give some clear explanations if you cannot, why you cannot provide those Hawkei vehicles or those Abhrams tanks or the de-mining equipment. Those types of things that have been specifically requested rather than going to military vehicles or equipment that some of them go back to the Vietnam era.
Patricia Karvelas: The Government says the Defence Department determined the Hawkeis should be sent over. Are you suggesting the Government should have ignored that advice?
Simon Birmingham: Well, one of my concerns and the Opposition’s concerns is that Defence is not being replenished for any of these contributions. So, the Government stands up and says it’s making a $110 million contribution, but that’s not $110 million more on the budget bottom line. It’s simply a valuation of some ageing vehicles that are being taken out of the existing defence fleet and sent over there. So, the real question here is if Defence were being given commitments of replenishment, that if we sent more Hawkeis or we sent more Bushmasters and the Government committed to replace those by building more of them in Australia. These are Australian made vehicles. And so, you’d be generating industry jobs and activity here in Australia too. Would Defence have a different attitude? There’s every chance they might. But you can understand if you are part of the Australian defence leadership, if you’re not being given any replenishment, if it’s all coming out of existing, why you may be a little more reluctant to send the more modern equipment that you are looking at needing for Australia’s own assets at present.
Patricia Karvelas: I just want to move to another topic if we can. Simon Birmingham, Before I let you go, just to get some clarity, there are many moderates on your side of politics who are campaigning for a Voice to Parliament in this referendum that’s looming. Do you support the Voice?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, I’ve been clear that I don’t intend to actively campaign in the referendum. I have plenty of things – the issues we’ve just been talking about to focus my time on. I wish the country weren’t in a situation where it appears to be having a vote that is so evenly divided and the possibility of a constitutional referendum on this issue failing. I would have much rather seen a situation-
Patricia Karvelas: Wouldn’t there be less of a risk of it failing if leading moderates like you were clear about what you really thought?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I wish that. I wish my one voice was so powerful, but ultimately, my vote will be the same as your vote and the same as each and every other listener’s vote-
Patricia Karvelas: Sure. And what will your vote be?
Simon Birmingham: – in context of this referendum. And my vote, I will get to cast the same as everyone else in a secret ballot, Patricia.
Patricia Karvelas: Are you going to keep it private?
Simon Birmingham: Well, it is a secret ballot for every single Australian. I wish that we had a situation where the model that was being put forward was one that could have achieved broader support, that didn’t have the questions about executive government lingering over it that actually had greater chance of success. And it’s unfortunate to see the debate in the situation it is in right now.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay. Why aren’t you taking a position? I mean, you’re making it clear that you want it to be private. If it’s private, that means you are actually sitting on the fence. Why have you decided to do that?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I think you can hear from my answer there that I am in some ways conflicted and think this is a very difficult situation the country has been put in. That we have got a question before us and a proposed change before us that even some of the staunchest supporters, such as Greg Craven or Julian Leeser, who were there at the outset have expressed their deep reservations-
Patricia Karvelas: But they’re supporting it now.
Simon Birmingham: They are supporting it. But they have expressed deep, deep reservations-
Patricia Karvelas: Yep, so why aren’t you as a leading moderate?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ve not been as integrally involved as those people from the outset. I’ve not been a strong and leading supporter from the outset, and I can understand why people have with those reservations and instinct to say, well, this is ultimately a constitutional change. It is embedded in our Constitution once adopted, it’s not so simple to change as legislation is. And that’s why if it’s got the balance wrong, you may need to vote no. And that’s obviously the position that my party has come to. And I’ve been very clear that I don’t intend to act contrary to that.
Patricia Karvelas: But if you have concerns, then, I mean, because you’re kind of hedging and you say you’re conflicted. You’ve admitted you’re conflicted, right?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, as I said, I would wish the country were not in this position, I do not think an unsuccessful-
Patricia Karvelas: But it is in this position. You could wish anything you like, but this is the situation the country is in. This is a moment for you personally, isn’t it, to make your own position clear?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, it’s about a lot more than me. And I think the fact that we are spending now more time on this issue as the Shadow Foreign Minister than on the issues we were just talking about with the global ramifications they’re having. You know, ultimately there are many, many people who are active participants in the Voice debate and they are all free to be active participants. Not every single member of pParliament, not every single member of the government or opposition frontbench need to be dedicating all of their time or vast chunks their time to this-
Patricia Karvelas: Okay, fair enough. But I think now this is getting pretty real, right? This is looming. Would you be comfortable going into that ballot box and voting no?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, that will be a matter that I’ll have to have to wrestle with. I will look carefully and indeed understand fully the constitutional consequences. And I have reservations about the wording that is there and that is why I don’t intend to act contrary-
Patricia Karvelas: But you clearly have reservations about voting no as well, right?
Simon Birmingham: I don’t want to see a referendum fail. And that is why ultimately, as Peter Dutton stressed again just the other day, we could go back to the basics and the drawing board here and that would be a good thing for the Government to think about in terms of whether there is a model, a constitutional recognition that could actually get very much universal support. And if you want a model of legislated Voice, I’m here in South Australia where the state Labor Government hasn’t embedded the state Voice to Parliament in the state constitution. It’s done it through a legislative model and means and that is a viable alternative pathway that the Albanese Government could look at. To provide exactly as the South Australian Government has done, constitutional recognition of first peoples in the constitution and a Voice to Parliament through a legislated model. That means if it needs changing and adapting over time, it can more easily be done so.
Patricia Karvelas: I want to change the topic to another one. Yesterday, Russia’s bid to overturn the Government’s legislation preventing them from building an embassy on a block near Parliament House failed in the High Court. So, what do you think that land should be used for now?
Simon Birmingham: Well, that land in itself should be considered very carefully, given its close proximity to Parliament House and to other significant institutions. And so I suspect that land will be more likely used for public purposes or Australian government purposes. There is a need separate to that parcel of land to find, for example, an appropriate site for Ukraine to have a permanent embassy and representative structure in Australia. And that is something I would urge the Government to get on and do. We had encouraged the Government to look at that previously. I accept the security analysis that perhaps foreign embassies are not appropriate for that site regardless of who they are. But we should be seeking to find a home for Ukraine to be able to have that permanent presence, given the lasting friendship I now expect between our two countries.
Patricia Karvelas: Thank you so much for your time.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia. My pleasure.