Topic:   Urgent support needed for Ukraine; China-Australia relationship; EU-FTA negotiations;

05:08PM AEST
Thursday, 8 June, 2023


Andy Park: The Federal Opposition is increasing the pressure on the Labor Government to increase support for Ukraine in its battle against the Russian invasion. A Coalition letter to the Foreign Minister, Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles warned Australia is at risk of looking like it’s, quote, no longer pulling our weight compared to the other allies. Joining me now is Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Birmingham. Welcome back to RN Drive.


Simon Birmingham: Hello Andy. It’s great to be with you again.


Andy Park: Why did you write this letter?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we wrote this letter after many discussions with the Australian-Ukrainian community, with visiting parliamentary delegations after observing the Ukrainian Government reached the point where they are running public advocacy campaigns for Australia to do more. And clearly a show of some frustration and frankly a bit of embarrassment for Australia that that we have Ukraine having reached that point. We want to ensure that we offer as much by partisan support as is possible for Australia to do as much as possible back when this terrible tragic war commenced. Australia’s initial response positioned us as the leading non-NATO contributor in support of Ukraine. Since then, though, we’ve seen real slippage and there has been no additional humanitarian assistance to Ukraine since the election of the Albanese government. There have only been a small number of additional areas of military assistance and what we really are calling for here is a full new additional comprehensive package of support that ensures across energy, across humanitarian and across military domains. Australia continues to provide support for a friend and country in need.


Andy Park: Australia stepped into the fray before a lot of Ukraine’s NATO neighbours could. You could make the argument that they now have. So why is the onus still on Australia to step up to the plate?


Simon Birmingham: Because it is clearly in Australia’s interest for us to continue to do so. This isn’t just about a country that is a long way away and their rights or territorial borders. It’s about the defence of sovereignty for any small or mid-sized nation against a larger nation and neighbour. It’s about standing up for the international rules and norms that we rely upon and other countries do to ensure that our sovereignty and our rights are protected. And it’s about acting in concert with the types of allies, partners and fellow democracies who we would expect to support us and to be active in our region if it ever came to pass that we needed their assistance.


Andy Park: There are reports of a fresh delivery of Australian equipment for Ukraine and that that’s arrived in Europe overnight on board a military cargo plane. Understandably, perhaps, given everything going on with the counter-offensive, the ADF is not providing details of this aid. So is this call a little premature?


Simon Birmingham: No. If we are seeing shipments at present, that’s of equipment that has already been promised. And indeed we’ve had some frustration in terms of a lack of transparency by the Albanese Government about whether or not promises made to Ukraine over the last 12 plus months have all been delivered upon. Now in terms of individual shipments, timing of those things, of course we don’t expect operational details to be released. But by contrast with the secrecy we’ve had in Australia, the United Kingdom, for example, who of course are making a much bigger commitment as they should be, given the size of their nation and proximity. But the United Kingdom has been reporting to their parliament and therefore their public about the delivery of promises in ensuring that people have confidence those promises are being delivered. And whilst news potentially of another shipment having reached Ukraine today is welcome, I’d really like to see Defence and the Albanese Government provide a full update as to whether Australia has actually met all of the promises made to date as well as ensure that we are providing additional support as this conflict now into its second year drags on because it’s no time for us to show signs of fatigue. It’s time for us to make sure that together with our partners who’ve made very significant additional commitments so far this calendar year, that we are standing with them.


Andy Park: Senator, how much of this push to increase aid is to do with concerns that China may be closely monitoring how Australia is responding to this situation? I was speaking to Mick Ryan a couple of weeks back and he said essentially Australia is at risk of looking like a bystander and that makes us vulnerable when it comes to our Chinese relations. What do you think of this?


Simon Birmingham: That was a very powerful piece that that former Australian Army leader Mick Ryan wrote a couple of weeks ago, and it did indeed suggest that Australia was potentially at bystander status compared with other countries and that that had been a deterioration from where we had been more than a year ago in terms of our early initial effort. The response and why Australia should be doing this isn’t about any particular situation in our region today. It is, as I said before, about ensuring that we help a fellow nation defend not just itself, but the international rules, laws and norms that we rely on as a country to ensure that together with fellow democracies and others concerned for that type of respect of sovereignty, we protect and work to fight and defend somebody who is a country that is being invaded by a larger and what they believe to have been more powerful neighbour. And in doing that that we build and maintain the types of partnerships and alliances that are important to Australia’s national defence today and into the future.


Andy Park: Speaking about China, Labor is a bit more upbeat about how things are going with China at the moment. China removed tariffs on Australian citrus and stone fruit and there’s reportedly progress towards removing the barley tariff. Labor seems to be doing a good job repairing the relationship on the evidence at hand that was fractured under the previous government. Would you agree?


Simon Birmingham: I’ve welcomed progress and I think we’ve discussed that before. The fact that China ceased its ban on dialogue is welcome, it was always counterproductive of China to refuse to sit down with Australian ministers, and it’s a good thing they are doing that. The types of progress we’ve seen to date are welcome, but we should put them in context. China is still today in breach of the terms it agreed to under the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. It’s still in breach of its commitments to the World Trade Organisation and those types of actions that still apply in terms of trade sanctions against Australian barley, Australian wine and other less direct trade sanctions are a legacy of China’s attempt at economic coercion against Australia and we should be expecting nothing less than for China to go back and agree the terms of the free trade agreement that it voluntarily entered into with Australia and to show respect to that agreement and honour their word in relationship to it.


Andy Park: Michael, on the topic of free trade agreements, the Albanese Government is threatening to walk away from the FTA with the EU if it doesn’t represent Australia’s interests. What do you make of this situation?


Simon Birmingham: We should always seek to drive the best possible bargain for Australia in terms of our trade negotiations. That’s certainly what the previous Coalition government did when we sought trade deals, be they at the end of our time with India in an initial agreement or the United Kingdom in a comprehensive agreement or our earlier agreements with China, Japan, Korea and many of course multi-nation agreements that were struck, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. So, I would fully expect the Albanese Government to be willing to walk away if required to be seeking to get a comprehensive trade deal. Of course, in dealing with the European Union, there are some certain realities you have to expect and understand. Their demands on geographical indicators are ones that they seek in all trade deals, and we should make sure that is not to the detriment of well-established Australian products or brands in that regard. But we should be willing to deal practically with the EU on matters of geographical indicators. But the real test of whether a trade deal is a good one or not is whether we sufficiently liberalise the flow of goods and services between two economies, whether enough tariffs and quotas are eliminated, reduced or opened up in ways to ensure that more meat, more grains, more sugar, more wine, more high quality services in education, financial services and the like, and all of the other goods and services that make up our trade between both the EU and Australia can flow more freely in both directions. And that should be the real test as to whether a deal is done and stacks up or not.


Andy Park: We’ll have to leave it there. Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham, I do appreciate your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Andy. My pleasure.