Topics: Russian escalation on war in Ukraine; Australian support for Ukraine; Australia-China relations; AFL investigation; Senate sitting


07:35AM AEST


Patricia Karvelas:  Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister and joins us this morning. Simon Birmingham, welcome.


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


Patricia Karvelas: President Putin accused the West of nuclear blackmail. How worried should the world be that he could resort to using nuclear weapons and how should the international community respond?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, any threat by a nuclear armed state in relation to the use of those nuclear weapons is deeply disturbing. Now, of course, the experts you’ve had on before talking about the deterrence factor and role that nuclear weapons can also play, and the deterrence of other nations that should weigh on Russia’s mind is an important consideration. There are many aspects, though, that are concerning in relation to what President Putin has said. He continues to base his claims in relation to Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine on falsehoods, claims in relation to Russian claim over territory that is clearly Ukrainian sovereign territory. It’s in the interests of all nations, be they big or small or from all corners of the world, to see Ukraine succeed in defending its sovereignty, its territory. And that does mean that all nations should be looking at how much more they can assist Ukraine and deliver that assistance as quickly and expeditiously as possible to Ukraine. And Australia should continue to be at the forefront of that and should be responding with urgency to the requests that Ukraine has made for additional assistance from Australia.


Patricia Karvelas: Okay. Just picking you up on that- should respond with urgency. Is your sense that there hasn’t been an urgent response?


Simon Birmingham: Australia from the outset of Russia’s invasion some seven months or so ago now has been the leading non-NATO supporter of Ukraine, has delivered exceptional assistance across the military horizon in the provision of weapons and the provision of vehicles, as well as in the provision of financial assistance and humanitarian and other assistance. That is critical. But we are aware and indeed you’ve spoken directly with Ukraine’s Ambassador to Australia that there are now other outstanding requests made by Ukraine of Australia. And I would urge the Albanese Government to make sure that they keep Australia at that forefront and to respond as expeditiously as they possibly can, because any assistance delayed in its provision to Ukraine only heightens the risk that Ukraine, who has been heroic in its battle to date, does not manage to maintain that level of defence. And that is why we need to continue to deliver that support and because it is about defending and upholding the international rules-based order, the respect for the sovereignty of individual nations, and ensuring that out of this conflict others in the future are deterred from acting in any way similar to how Putin and Russia have acted on this occasion.


Patricia Karvelas: We just heard Vladimir Zelensky asking the West for more help. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister has directly asked Penny Wong for more Australian made Bushmaster vehicles to assist in the conflict. Do you support the Federal Government to give Ukraine whatever assistance they ask for? Do you think they should just meet that demand fully?


Simon Birmingham: I think Australia should be giving whatever assistance we reasonably and possibly can. The Government is in receipt of the advice from the Australian Defence Force and other Australian officials about the limits in terms of provision of particular military assets, hardware or equipment. And so the Government will have to work through those issues around what the particular assets that we can provide are and where the limits on those exist. But the government should absolutely be doing all it possibly can, responding as quickly as possible when commitments are made, ensuring that equipment is delivered as quickly as possible, because any sense of delay only plays into Russia’s hands and doesn’t deliver to Ukraine what it clearly needs as quickly as it needs it.


Patricia Karvelas: Are you suggesting there has been a delay?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia. It’s clear that Ukraine has made requests. They’ve now gone public in relation to those requests. Now, I’m not suggesting that the government isn’t trying to move through things quickly. I know they have continued to deliver assistance and support. But they do need to make sure they act with the sense of urgency befitting what is a war zone. Ukraine has shown enormous capacity and capability to fight off Russia and to do so in ways that far exceed what many expected at the beginning of this conflict in this war. And it’s in our interest to make sure they continue to succeed and that at the same time, we continue to explore further sanctions, further measures that can be placed on Russia, and that we do that in concert and with other international partners. And that the terrible statements made by President Putin in the last 24 hours do warrant that further exploration of additional sanctions and measures to target Russia and particularly President Putin, other leaders, oligarchs, and associated figures in his regime. And to make sure that maximum pressure is put to bear on them and to cease and desist this illegal activity, to come to the table, willing to lay down arms. But I do stress that his claims that there is any interest by Australia or other nations in interfering in the territorial sovereignty of Russia are completely false. Just of course, as his suggestions that these referenda he proposes to hold in occupied territories are fanciful ideas in terms of the credibility that any such vote would have given Russia’s history in such undertakings.


Patricia Karvelas: Beijing’s concerns about Russia’s conduct in Ukraine were on public display at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Uzbekistan. Is this the right moment for countries like Australia to be trying to bring China on board against Russia?


Simon Birmingham: We should definitely be encouraging and strongly welcoming any steps that China and others play in relation to urging Russia to cease and desist and certainly urging Russia not to follow through with any threat in relation to the use of nuclear weapons. The stance, for example, taken by India in public remarks at that summit was a very, very welcome step forward and we would welcome China playing a greater role. China are in a unique position in terms of the influence and sway that they could hold over Russia. And I would urge them to use that influence and sway to help deliver a peaceful outcome that does see a resolution without the continuation of this terrible conflict.


Patricia Karvelas: Do you see the meeting between our Foreign Minister Penny Wong and a Chinese counterpart, the Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as a cause for optimism?


Simon Birmingham: I welcome the fact that the Australian Government and the Albanese Government has continued to stress that Australia’s strategic interests and policy concerns have not changed with the change of government. And that means that there should be no change to the policy approach undertaken by Australia. But if within that, China is now willing to come to the table for ministerial dialogue in ways that they refused to do previously, then that is a very welcome step. And again, dialogue is something that I have always encouraged that the previous Australian government was always open to and wished to see occur with China. And so, I would urge this government to pursue that where it can.


Patricia Karvelas: Will the Coalition support Independent Senator David Pocock’s call for an extra sitting day to be scheduled for next Thursday to make up for the time that’s been lost?


Simon Birmingham: Look the sitting calendar is a matter for the Government in relation to how it manages things. The Government has brought on the four replacement sitting days for the sitting week that was cancelled as a result of the death of Her Majesty. And so, if the Government proposes any alternatives to that, we will listen to them.


Patricia Karvelas: Just finally, are you shocked by the allegations of the mistreatment of First Nations players at Hawthorn? And do you believe as people like Eddie Betts and others have said, that the AFL needs a league wide investigation into racism now?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, these allegations would be serious allegations in relation to any person, be they, be they, indigenous first nations or otherwise in any workplace, be it an AFL club or any other workplace environment. And so it’s only fit and proper that there be a thorough investigation in relation to these allegations. They do come with a history of some other claims in recent years and issues that have been raised, particularly in relation to First Nations peoples. And so I would certainly welcome the AFL undertaking whatever fulsome steps it feels necessary in consultation with its player group. And particularly with its First Nations players past and present, to be able to ensure confidence in the way in which clubs support those players, including in relation to supporting them in a culturally appropriate way.


Patricia Karvelas: So a wider investigation, given the point you just made. Previous cases we saw obviously in Collingwood, it’s a number of clubs now. Clearly there is something more systemic. Is that what you’re suggesting?


Simon Birmingham: Well, AFL clubs are unique employers in that they take young people from all walks of life, including remote Indigenous communities, uproot them and put them in quite high-pressured environments. It’s been recognised for some time. That comes then with a unique duty of care for those clubs. And so, if there are concerns, as is clearly the case given these and other reports that some of those duties of care have not been met satisfactorily, and that that particularly relates to First Nations players, then the AFL ought to make sure that systems across the AFL and all clubs are adequate and clearly reviews to ensure that’s the case would be appropriate.


Patricia Karvelas: Thanks so much for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia.