Topics: Ministerial appointments; Solicitor-General report; Christine Holgate; Jobs summit; Ukraine embassy in Canberra;
Patricia Karvelas: Well, the Prime Minister has promised an independent investigation into the secret assumption of power by his predecessor. But attention is now turning to what bureaucrats and former advisers knew and when. Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and he’s our guest. Welcome.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, PK, and good morning to your listeners.
Patricia Karvelas: Now you’ve said an apology from Scott Morrison for the ministries scandal would be welcome. Are you and your colleagues trying to persuade him to apologise? Have you reached out to him?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I’m not seeking to counsel him. In the end, there’s been thorough legal analysis undertaken by the solicitor general that I think is a good piece of work. It found that there were no illegalities, but certainly there were problems. And the biggest problem being the secrecy and the lack of transparency. The Solicitor General has proposed some actions that the now government could take to rectify that and ensure that there was never a repeat in the future and the government should get on and do that.
Patricia Karvelas: Are you satisfied with the account Scott Morrison has given of why he did what he did, or do you think there are questions that still need to be answered?
Simon Birmingham: Look, he’s sought to explain himself. That’s really a matter for him. I’m interested in looking forward and in looking forward, I want to make sure that the same types of mistakes can’t happen in the future and that there is transparency around who is able to administer different departments at different points in time.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay. Yesterday I spoke to Malcolm Turnbull. I don’t know if you’ve been able to listen to the interview. ABC Listen app is your best resource just to catch up on that audio.
Simon Birmingham: I was on a plane at the time, so will be a catch up if required.
Patricia Karvelas: Well, it’s all there. Malcolm Turnbull says we need to know did he get warned by the department, by his officials, his own office? What advice existed? The Governor-General’s role? Do you think all of those elements need to be explained to, and do you expect there would have been some pushback?
Simon Birmingham: Look, it’s the government now if they’re going to have another review, which they’ve indicated to explain the scope of that review, but logically, if they’re having one, then it should look at the role of others in terms of advice or the like that has been provided to see if there are any further lessons and reforms that should be put in place in the future. The most obvious one is precisely what the Solicitor-General has already recommended, which is to ensure that there is a legal framework that requires the publication of administrative arrangements as to which departments of state ministers are able to administer. That’s the most sensible, logical reform. The Solicitor General’s recommended it. The Government should get on and implement it. They want to have a look at whether there are any other lessons in a constructive way. Well, of course, that’s a sensible thing to do.
Patricia Karvelas: The word witchhunt has been used. Do you use that language for what’s happening?
Simon Birmingham: Well, not at this stage, in the sense that the Solicitor-General’s analysis was thoughtful and entirely relevant consideration of the issues. I would hope that any further review does, precisely as I just outlined, look to see if there are further lessons to be learnt for the future and further reforms that should be considered not necessarily go and seek to trash anybody’s reputation, be that in the public service, a former political staffer or anybody else.
Patricia Karvelas: And do you, as someone who worked as a senior minister in the leadership group, do you expect that there would have been pushback or there should have been pushback to such a radical idea?
Simon Birmingham: I would have thought there should have been some questions asked down the track when we got to appointments in things such as Treasury and Home Affairs more than a year later. I think if you look at the initial decision, particularly in the health portfolio at the height of COVID, that was at that time, I think, an entirely defensible and logical one. The only error on that part was that it wasn’t made public. But certainly having a backup in place to be able to sign the orders under the extreme powers that the Health Minister had at the time was logical when you think about all the things that were happening to close Australia’s international borders, to put restrictions in place. All of which we should remember helped to keep Australians safe and to save lives. And it Scott Morrison deserves significant credit for his successes in saving lives, saving jobs, saving Australian businesses as well as other reforms in making our country more secure.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay. And you say that, you know, you do expect that there would have been some questions asked. And if there weren’t, does it mean the system failed? And that’s really serious.
Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia as I said, if there’s to be a further review, it should be constructive and look indeed at the adequacy of the type of advice provided in those circumstances and make sure that if there are reforms for the future, that they are put in place along with those transparency measures we’ve already discussed.
Patricia Karvelas: And do you know why Christine Holgate is so angry? Do you do you kind of get her position?
Simon Birmingham: I can understand that, although I would stress there in relation to the review that was undertaken by the Secretaries of the Departments of Finance and Communications, that neither of them had any awareness of Scott Morrison’s appointments. And, and in that regard, both of them would have conducted that review, which I also note did not find systemic wrongdoing by Christine Holgate in any way, shape or form. Both of them undertook that review completely independently and impartially.
Patricia Karvelas: Are you hoping the jobs summit succeeds next week for the sake of the country?
Simon Birmingham: Well, of course, I always hope the best for the nation. The test for the jobs summit will be whether small and medium business owners across the country look at what is recommended from it and think it will be easier for me to grow my business. It will be easier for me to hire more people. It will be easier for me to create higher paying jobs. And so that is really the simple test that it has to pass in terms of what comes out of it. I see a lot of what you might describe as the usual names and suspects participating, but I think when it’s all done and dusted, the types of proposals, if there are any out of it, need to be run past those sorts of people who are the real job creators across our country.
Patricia Karvelas: Just finally, you’re calling for Ukraine to be given a permanent home with a proper embassy in Canberra. You’ve suggested they be given the plot of land that was previously allocated to Russia. What message would that send?
Simon Birmingham: I think it would send a very fitting message. Russia chose for many years to drag its heels in relation to the development of that land, and that’s why the National Capital Authority terminated the lease recently after a long period of analysis. Ukraine currently has rented offices in an office block in the Canberra CBD. They deserve as a nation the type of embassy and presence and particularly right now we should be ensuring that we support Ukraine in every way possible after six months of this war, we can’t allow weariness to set in and to start to neglect that conflict, we have to make sure that we continue to provide practical assistance. The previous government made sure that Australia was the largest non-NATO contributor to the Ukraine. We ought to make sure we continue to give Ukraine that level of support. Following the lead of President Biden, who has announced a $3 billion further assistance of military and other support for Ukraine. And I’d call on the Albanese government to make sure they look at all further measures to support, including that practical and symbolic one of giving Ukraine access to land to have their own embassy in Canberra.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay, I’ll put it to Penny Wong next time I speak to her. Simon Birmingham, thank you so much for your time.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia. My pleasure.