Topics: Devastating earthquake in Türkiye and Syria; Ukraine: Zelensky visit to UK; MH17 investigation suspended; Australia-China trade relations; Voice to Parliament;

06:50AM AEDT
9 February 2023


Patricia Karvelas: As you heard, at least four Australians are now unaccounted for in south eastern Türkiye after multiple devastating earthquakes and aftershocks reduced cities to rubble. Rescue workers are in a race against time in subzero temperatures to pull survivors from the wreckage. An Australian search and rescue team will arrive by the end of the week to assist with those efforts. Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and our guest in the studio. Welcome back to Breakfast. Good morning, Patricia. Good to be with you. The disaster is still at its very early stages. The casualties are approaching 12,000 and will go higher, no doubt. A team of 70 Australian search and rescue workers will arrive later this week. What can they do to help?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, all practical assistance has to be welcomed and we have provided from the very earliest moment bipartisan support for the government to give assistance to this awful situation in Türkiye and Syria. The devastation that you can see on the screens and the loss of life. When I spoke earlier this week for the first time about this with the Turkish Ambassador to Australia, he recounted people who now feel ashamed to go to sleep because, of course, this happened in the dead of night. People had gone to bed, they’d tucked their children into bed and then found that their homes literally had collapsed around them. And so the devastation, the scarring, the loss of critical infrastructure and services as well. So the humanitarian element of Australia’s support is so crucial because this is not just about recovering people from rubble. It is also about ensuring that people have access to clean water, to essential medicines and other essential supplies to avoid an even greater humanitarian loss of life and toll occurring in the weeks and months to come.


Patricia Karvelas: We know that four Australians are unaccounted for. Are you worried that number could rise?


Simon Birmingham: There is always that threat, but I know that Australia’s consular services do an outstanding job and that Australians have had access to help lines and hotlines to make sure they can make those inquiries. We of course, feel for those families, as we do for all of those across the Australian Turkish community, the Australian Syrian community who are concerned for loved ones, concerned for places that they once called home. And obviously we keep all of those people in our thoughts.


Patricia Karvelas: Overnight Ukraine President Vladimir Zelensky visited the United Kingdom. He made an appeal for more weapons and funding from the West to combat Russia. Now, Australia has already put significant money into that war. But should we be doing more?


Simon Birmingham: We should not grow fatigued of helping Ukraine defend itself. We are around 15 days away from the first anniversary of this attempt by Russia to undertake a wholesale invasion of Ukraine, and we cannot after one year in which Ukraine has shown far greater resilience and capacity to defend itself than many people expected back at that time now allow fatigue to expose Ukraine to potential defeat. It’s important that we do continue to provide support, that NATO’s partners continue to provide support, and in doing so, that we put Ukraine in as strong a position as possible to continue to successfully defend itself, its territorial integrity, its sovereignty, and in doing so, the sovereignty and rules based order that we all depend upon in terms of respect for national borders and the sovereignty of each and every other nation. Of course, such support should be always with the expectation that Ukraine would be willing to come to the table for peace talks. And we should also be looking at the effectiveness of sanctions and measures against Russia and how we can find other means to put additional pressure on Russia to make them come to a peace table, too.


Patricia Karvelas: Well, meanwhile, Dutch investigators looking into the downing of MH17, which killed 38 Australians, found there are strong indications that Vladimir Putin supplied the missile, but say there’s no evidence he actually ordered the plane to be shot down. Now, the investigators have now closed the case. Will there ever be justice for this crime?


Simon Birmingham: Well, of course, we have seen the prosecution of a number of individuals, but tragically, Russia has always sought to avoid any engagement in the proper processes that have been undertaken by authorities in the Netherlands and elsewhere to try to bring people to justice for this. But it is a terrible, tragic reminder that what we are seeing in Ukraine and have seen over the last year and indeed since the annexation of Crimea has actually been going on for a longer period of time than just this 12 months. And that the types of actions undertaken by Russia have been reprehensible, endangered life, caused the loss of life in significant numbers, including of those Australians, tragically, who were on MH17.


Patricia Karvelas: Just I just want to turn to our own region now the Albanese Government told us it has credible information a shipment of coal arrived in China overnight. It’s the first time since the unofficial ban was introduced by Beijing. How significant is this?


Simon Birmingham: Well, this would be welcome. We will, of course, need to see that it is unloaded and passes through customs processes in a normal way. But it would be very welcome if it is the case, the actions that China has undertaken over the last few years, the attempts at economic coercion against Australia, the manner in which they ceased to engage in any type of diplomatic or ministerial level dialogue and refused to come to the table for that, they were all quite counterproductive. They hurt China as well as hurting aspects of Australian industry, and so it would be pleasing to see a resumption of that trade. But there is much still to be done in terms of removing the unfair, unjustified trade sanctions against the Australian wine industry, the Australian barley industry and many other sectors who face less transparent barriers to to trade with China as a result of their actions.


Patricia Karvelas: Do you expect it to extend to other Australian exports that are also on the unofficial ban list like lobster then?


Simon Birmingham: Well, if China is genuine about stabilisation in relations, about ending the Wolf Warrior diplomacy and about proving that they are not in the business of attempting economic coercion, then they should remove these unfair trade sanctions.


Patricia Karvelas: I want to move just to another couple of issues before we hit the news and AM to the Voice to Parliament. Your party wants all Australians to be mailed an information pamphlet about the referendum. Can you just explain what the deal that’s been done involves for this pamphlet?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I haven’t been at the table for all of those discussions between ministers and shadow ministers responsible for that. But the Government has been attempting to make some changes to the referendum machinery legislation, so nothing to do necessarily precisely with the Voice. But of course how referenda are conducted in Australia. And one of the things they had proposed was to no longer produce an official version of a yes case and in no case. We felt that it was important that it always been part of our referenda in the past and important to maintain that flow of consistent information to Australians in the future. And it’s welcome that the Government appears to have changed its position and will now make sure that that factual information is provided. And that type of factual information is important because it can also set some guardrails for debates in terms of actually what are sensible arguments, what are the true case in relation to a referendum proposal, not just things that might fly around in conspiracy theories or elsewhere?


Patricia Karvelas: I suspect lots of things will fly around. I want to just get from you whether you think there should be a yes and a no case funded?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I’m not keen to see large licks of taxpayer funding spent on running campaigns. There may need to be some administrative support for the standing up of official yes or no campaign committees. But that’s about as far as I’d want to see anything go.


Patricia Karvelas: Peter Dutton’s calling for money for the yes and no campaign. You don’t think it should go too far to spend too much money on this one? Why do you think- why are you reluctant?


Simon Birmingham: I think people will be able to receive the factual information that will now be guaranteed as a result of the Government’s commitments around the referendum changes. People will also see much other information, I’m sure shared through this process. There are already people getting organised to run their campaigns and so I don’t think that taxpayers need to be funding the advertising elements and all of those different components that we might see too.


Patricia Karvelas: We’ve only got a minute left. You’re a leading moderate in the Liberal Party. Are you leaning to a yes position?


Simon Birmingham: I don’t want to see this fail. And so let me make this appeal to the Government that I do think that, and to others, I do think that the absence of detail presents the easiest arguments for a no campaign to run against this. And I do implore and urge the Government, the advisory committee and others to make sure that there are detailed answers to questions being asked so that that argument can be taken off the table and Australians can make informed votes and choices.


Patricia Karvelas: Okay, but in the 10 seconds I’m giving you for this. The principle you support?


Simon Birmingham: The principle of recognition, the principle of consultation. I want to see- I support that, but I don’t want to see a referendum put that fails. And that’s why I urge the Government to see where this is going and to head it off at the pass.


Patricia Karvelas: Thank you so much. That is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Birmingham.