Topics: NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet; Australia-Pacific relations; China-Japan relations; Sanctions;

07:46AM AEDT
13 January 2023


Hamish MacDonald: Well Senator Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister. He joins us this morning from Adelaide. Good morning to you.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Hamish. Great to be with you.


Hamish MacDonald: I just want to pick up where we left off with Jim Chalmers there in relation to Dominic Perrottet. Do you think he should be considering his position as Premier of New South Wales today?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I think if the Jewish community in New South Wales can accept the Premier’s remorse and apology as genuine, then that is something that the rest of us should follow and accept as well. He has obviously expressed that publicly. He’s also sat down with those Jewish community leaders and from the comments I’ve heard of them, they appear to accept that apology and his remorse as being genuine.


Hamish MacDonald: Does it undermine his claim to his genuine remorse? The fact that he hadn’t said anything perhaps wouldn’t have said anything unless a Liberal colleague and opponent had called him about it a couple of days ago.


Simon Birmingham: Hamish, obviously he chose to bring this matter to the public light following those conversations. There are questions for him to answer, but I’m sure his remorse can have been very genuinely held and have been there for some time. And ultimately he’s done the right thing by expressing that publicly. But perhaps even more importantly, by sitting down face to face with those Jewish community leaders to talk through their issues.


Hamish MacDonald: So as a senior figure in the Liberal Party, you think he should go to the next election as the leader of the Liberal Party in New South Wales?


Simon Birmingham: Well, those matters are always for the parliamentary party in New South Wales. But as I said at the outset, I think if the Jewish community leaders in New South Wales find it in their heart as some of their comments appear to indicate, to accept his apology, to accept his remorse, to see all of that as genuine, then that’s a lead that others should take too.


Hamish MacDonald: I do want to ask you about Papua New Guinea and the Pacific. The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese is there right now. He’s become the first foreign head of government to address Papua New Guinea’s parliament moves towards a security treaty with PNG. Do you give this new government some credit for the work that it has done to improve/repair relations in the Pacific and PNG?


Simon Birmingham: Hamish, I certainly give the Government credit for its work across Pacific nations and with Papua New Guinea as well. I don’t accept all of the premise in your question there. The previous government signed a Comprehensive Security and Economic Partnership agreement with Papua New Guinea in 2020. That was a big step forward in terms of solidifying our relationship. It was from that agreement that discussions to further deepen our trade ties with PNG had ensued and from that agreement that further discussions for the establishment of this security treaty have ensued. And so there is a degree upon which the current government is building upon the efforts of previous government too, as is appropriate when it comes to Australia’s foreign policy.


Hamish MacDonald: Respectfully, weren’t you just a bit frustrated as was, as were many of your colleagues with the work of Marise Payne in terms of her level of engagement with the Pacific?


Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not, Hamish. I know full well how hard Marise Payne worked in terms of her engagement with leaders and counterparts across the Pacific, as indeed Scott Morrison, who after the 2019 election, the very first international trip he took was to the Solomon Islands. We shouldn’t forget that for essentially two years of the last three year parliamentary term, Pacific Island nations had their borders closed to travel to visits because of COVID and the pandemic. Let’s understand, we were dealing with difficult times there if people are just counting the numbers of visits that occurred. But these are challenging times and it requires work across the Pacific. I was pleased to join Penny Wong and just prior to Christmas on a three nation Pacific Island visit showing the bipartisan commitment Australia has to working with the Pacific. And I will continue to give that type of bipartisan support wherever possible to the government’s efforts.


Hamish MacDonald: When you went on that trip, did you see the difference in the conversation that Australia can have with Pacific leaders because of the changes to our climate policies?


Simon Birmingham: I did acknowledge it at the time, Hamish, that there clearly are benefits to the increased targets that the Government has made in relation to climate change and that that is welcomed by Pacific Island nations and that provides another pillar of strength to the many different areas of Australia’s cooperation with Pacific Island nations. It’s not the only one, in the case of Papua New Guinea, Australia is the largest trading partner and the largest investment partner, the largest development assistance partner with Papua New Guinea, as we are with many other Pacific Island nations, and they provide strong pillars for engagement. But the climate pillar is also a very important one and the Government is right to use its higher levels of commitment to help to strengthen those relationships even further.


Hamish MacDonald: You will have, I’m sure, observed closely China’s Ambassador in Canberra this week. His address to the Press Club. He referenced Japan’s bombing during the Second World War, the treatment of Australian P.O.W.s during that time as well, and an assertion that Australia should be careful about Japan’s intentions. How do you interpret that diplomatic stoush between Japan and China that has sort of unfolded on our- well here in Australia?


Simon Birmingham: I don’t want to step in the middle of or run commentary on a stoush between the ambassadors from two foreign nations that might be occurring. But let me say this very clearly Japan is now a very long standing, very close partner of Australia. In my time as trade minister, I couldn’t have found a nation with whom we had more in common in terms of the approach we took to international cooperation and collaboration and increasingly in other spheres, including security cooperation. Nations have come close together with the absolute highest degree of trust between one another.


Hamish MacDonald: Do you think that the I suppose, rapprochement, if you want to call it that yet between Australia and China, is genuine? Do you accept the warm words of the Chinese Ambassador this week?


Simon Birmingham: Ultimately, actions will speak louder than words, and so there have been now many multiple points of dialogue between the Albanese Government and Chinese counterparts. We’ve welcomed and given bipartisan support to that dialogue. But we do now need to see action in terms of the release of unfairly detained Australians, the removal of unfair, unwarranted trade sanctions. These are penalties that China chose to impose upon Australia in attempted acts of coercion. Australia is showing resilience to that. Australian business and industry has. Australia has politically in the sense that this Government has maintained the policy settings of the previous government in a whole range of areas that had aggravated China but were important for Australia’s national interest in terms of our support and settings around foreign investment, critical infrastructure, telecommunications network, foreign interference and the like. But the test as to whether improved relations are getting outcomes, that’s really what we’ve got to look for.


Hamish MacDonald: There’s an interesting thread in foreign policy I think, that’s emerged in different conversations we’ve had on the program recently. One relates to Sri Lanka. Canada this week imposed sanctions on the Rajapaksa’s, among others. Also, when it comes to Myanmar, unlike the US, UK, Canada and the EU, Australia has not imposed any additional sanctions on the junta there. We’ve also heard calls on this program for Australia to sanction or specify the Revolutionary Guard in Iran as a terrorist organisation. Do you think Australia is lagging somewhat in its desirability to confront some of these countries over their behaviours?


Simon Birmingham: Hamish, I think there is a lag and certainly in relation to Iran, for example, I called strongly for the Government, and other Coalition members such as Clare Chandler and Keith Wolahan have done likewise, to see the Government take stronger, faster action against leaders in Iran as well as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. And I think there is cause clearly for that. Now more generally Australia is still relatively new in recent in terms of having legislated the Magnitsky type sanctions regime that was put in place by the former government. It was used once following its legislation by the former government and once late last year by this new government in terms of announcements of some use of those sanctions. But I think we do need to see greater clarity around how this government is going to approach the use of those sanctions as tools for Australia to stand true to our values and the approach we take on the international stage about standing up for basic human rights and interests.


Hamish MacDonald: Simon Birmingham, we’ve got to get to the news. Thank you.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Hamish. My pleasure.