Topics: Delegation to Taiwan; AUSMIN; AUKUS; ANU election survey; Voice to Parliament;

6 December 2022

Patricia Karvelas: A cross-party delegation of Australian backbenchers are visiting Taiwan this week and it’s starting to cause a bit of a stir. Chinese state media, The Global Times, has written that the politicians from certain countries who visit Taiwan to seek limelight are like political gods of plague and pestilence. This is all happening while the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles and the Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong, meet with their US counterparts for the AUSMIN talks in Washington. The Shadow Foreign Minister is Simon Birmingham and he joins us this morning. Welcome back to Breakfast.


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


Patricia Karvelas: As we speak, six backbenchers from the Labor, Liberal and National Party, including former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, are in Taiwan. What is the purpose of the trip?


Simon Birmingham: These sorts of exchanges or delegation visits by parliamentarians are not at all uncommon. This is really the resumption of normal practice following the shutdown during the COVID period. It’s a delegation the likes of which I participated on more than a decade ago, and many other Australian parliamentarians have done so. And of course, it is essentially to understand better Australia’s relations, particularly in this case economic ties with an economy like Taiwan and to ensure a broader understanding of our relations and engagement with the region.


Patricia Karvelas: Considering the thawing of diplomatic relations Australia has recently achieved with Beijing, which you know, you’ve even been on the program remarking on the fact that is significant and important. What sort of message does the trip send?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the only thing it should seem to anybody is that Australia is getting back on with business as usual in the post COVID lockdown and shutdown era. That’s all that this delegation signifies and no more nor less should be read into it. Taiwan remains an important economic partner, a valued democracy within our region, and a place in which Australia’s engagement should continue in the same types of ways it always has.


Patricia Karvelas: So when we read that statement from the Chinese state media, The Global Times. Does it concern you or is it just what you expect?


Simon Birmingham:  The Global Times is not known for its moderate commentary, so I am not surprised to see it commentating in in the sorts of tone that is applied. But as I say in terms of how anybody should read this, be it within Australia or anywhere else around the world, they should see it as a resumption of business as usual.


Patricia Karvelas: On another issue, Richard Marles is meeting with his defence counterpart, Lloyd Austin in Washington, and the AUKUS pact between the states and the UK and Australia is expected to be the top of the agenda this week. What do you want to see come out of these meetings?


Simon Birmingham: It’s really important that we see strong momentum continue around the AUKUS partnership. This will provide the first trilateral defence ministers meeting between Australia, the US and the UK, as well as the traditional AUSMIN discussions between foreign and defence ministers of Australia and the US. And that’s a really critical partnership where what we want to see is maximum progress being made in terms of the breaking down of any of the barriers towards quickly acquiring the nuclear powered submarines, as well as making real progress on advanced capabilities such as sharing artificial intelligence and hypersonic capabilities. All of which were outlined in the initial AUKUS partnership. And I welcome what seems to be very strong commitments from all parties towards that type of progress.


Patricia Karvelas: AUKUS is still a very broad and vague agreement. Do we need to see some sort of charter written or specific targets to give some clarity on what it is or should be in terms of lots of different elements, including delivery?


Simon Birmingham: I think what we need to see, obviously, for the nuclear-powered submarines is tangible progress. Now, the government tells us they’re on track for the March deadline that was set down by the previous government. That’s welcome, if anything can be brought forward in terms of the selection of type of boat. The details around how it will be built and constructed, the workforce needs and the like. Then they ought to also be brought forward, they’re big infrastructure tasks in terms of what will have to be constructed at the Osborne shipyards here in Adelaide that are necessary. And so any of that work that can be gotten underway earlier or the master planning released, all of that should occur. There’s also an element in terms of how Australian industry engages with the AUKUS partnerships that really could do with reform in terms of some of the laws in the US and here in Australia to make sure that our industrial base, our companies can manage to trade seamlessly without undue red tape around arms trafficking type barriers and that our workforce needs can most effectively be met by seamless security clearances and visa processes so that we can have skilled workers in the defence industries move between our nations as easily as possible.


Patricia Karvelas: Your colleague in the Shadow Cabinet, Andrew Hastie, who’s the Shadow Defence Minister, says Australia should strike a deal with the US to have the first of its nuclear-powered submarines built in Connecticut. Do you agree with him?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think we should be open to securing the first boats as quickly as possible-


Patricia Karvelas: But he’s quite specific there. Do you agree with him?


Simon Birmingham:  I think, as I say, we should be open to the best possible means for us to get the first of these class of boats as quickly as possible. And now what those means may be it depends, of course, upon what other parties will negotiate with us. But to get that boat early or boats early so that we’re able to skill up our crews, skill up those who will maintain and sustain the boats, put in place the infrastructure, not just to build them in Adelaide, but also to operate them out of Henderson in Western Australia and ultimately an East Coast location as well. There’s upsides to that. Peter Dutton has previously spoken about the potential to look at that in the context of potentially still building eight in Adelaide, but indeed increasing the size of the fleet by procuring one or two earlier. These are all options certainly the Government should look at along with crewing and other options that can give us the type of skills and capabilities that we need as early as possible.


Patricia Karvelas: Just moving to some domestic politics and national Cabinet was meant to meet tomorrow, but that’s been cancelled because the Prime Minister’s contracted COVID, which of course is on the rise at the moment. Lots of people contracting COVID. Your deputy leader, Sussan Ley, says the PM and the premiers should meet remotely. Why? Why is she saying that? Is that something you- a view you share?


Simon Birmingham: We certainly, of course wish the PM well while he deals with COVID. But virtually every Australian now has experience, if not themselves, of a loved one working through COVID. If the PM is up to work from home, he should be working from home and he should proceed with these meetings because we should have had an energy plan from the government in the budget that was handed down a couple of months ago now. Rather than all of the internal bickering that we’ve seen and heard play out on your program, people like the Industry Minister Ed Husic being very bolshie at one stage in an interview, watering it down in subsequent interviews as clearly other ministers had different viewpoints. If the government now has a plan, a very late plan to bring to the table, they should make sure it’s not delayed any longer. And particularly given the division between the states, we can now see about the types of concepts being floated.


Patricia Karvelas: Yeah. Look, I have no idea what the status of his COVID is, right? Like he has COVID, but I know people who have it mildly. I know people who’ve had it, and it’s quite debilitating. So we don’t actually know. Isn’t it up to him to form the judgement about whether he’s up to having that meeting? Is it really up to the Opposition to say you should be holding it virtually? Clearly, the Prime Minister’s made an assessment that he can’t.


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think from what I heard on AM, his office haven’t actually ruled that out yet from questions from journalists about whether he may entertain doing it virtually. And as I said, it’s a question of yes, if he’s up to it, but if he is up to it, then he should. Of course, if he’s not up to it, then there’s no reason why an acting prime minister couldn’t get on and do the job, too.


Patricia Karvelas: Okay, fair enough. I want to talk about something before I let you go. The ANU election survey released yesterday found voters are shifting their support to more progressive parties and that you have a real issue among millennial voters and they are a bigger part of the electorate and women. Is the Liberal Party facing an existential threat?


Simon Birmingham: The Liberal Party faces real challenges that we need to face up to and get on with implementing the type of policies and reforms necessary to ensure that we can win back seats that would give us a pathway to majority at the next election and beyond. I don’t put it in such dire terms as an existential threat as you describe it, Patricia, or as others have. I think we are up to those challenges, but it will require the type of focus on policy that I know Peter and the team are deploying within Canberra at present, but also a real focus in terms of the party preselected candidates who better reflect Australian diversity and give voters of all ages and backgrounds confidence that the Liberal Party can effectively represent them.


Patricia Karvelas: Just on one of the big signature moments, I think for your party, all parties, every individual, probably the voice to Parliament proposition for a referendum. You’re a leading moderate now. I think the leading moderate because some of your colleagues have certainly lost their seats, as you know, and that’s the role you’re playing inside your party. Would you urge your party to vote yes?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I certainly don’t want to see a voice referendum put and fail. I think that would be undesirable for the country. And to many people who hold the issue dear. I can understand why people want the government to spell out of the various reports and analyses that have been done precisely what type of model they are going to proceed with and give some detail to it. But this is an issue that is one where constitutional change has been shown to be difficult in this country, even when parties have not taken firm positions against it-


Patricia Karvelas: So is your philosophical- Yeah. As a leading moderate, is it your philosophical view that that your party or at least, you know, free vote should be held so that people like you can advocate for a yes vote?


Simon Birmingham: There are definitely different views across the party. Many who simply want to try to make an informed decision based on the detail. But I think there will no doubt be differences of opinion right through until people cast their ballots. And I expect you’ll hear those aired out. And that’s not an unusual thing in terms of viewpoints across the Liberal Party.


Patricia Karvelas: Very simple question. You were in the Cabinet. You got that report from Ken Wyatt twice on the model. Did you read it?


Simon Birmingham:  I haven’t read the report cover to cover, Patricia. No. I had lots of reports that came through, but I’m well aware of the type of model and concept proposed in terms of the region local aspect-


Patricia Karvelas: There is some detail out there, isn’t there?


Simon Birmingham:  There’s lots of detail. What isn’t there is clarity from the government about which elements of these things and proposals they are definitely going to put into legislation. So it is important for the government there to say of such reports, what are they going to do with them and how are they going to progress it? It’s not reasonable just to say there’s a report there and not actually clarify fully which parts of it the government is committed to.


Patricia Karvelas: Thanks so much for joining us this morning.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks Patricia. My pleasure.