Topic:  Cancelled President Biden visit and Quad meeting; Asia pacific; Trade relations with China; Jobseeker;

05:05PM AEST
Wednesday, 17 May 2023


Andy Park: This week’s Quad Leaders meeting in Sydney won’t go ahead because US President Joe Biden cancelled his visit to Australia as he works to hash out a deal with Republicans to prevent the US from defaulting on its debts. President Biden will travel to Japan, though, for this weekend’s G7 summit, where it’s hoped the Quad can meet on the sidelines.




Andy Park: Yeah. This afternoon it was confirmed that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Sydney next week. Joining me now is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Birmingham. Welcome back to RN Drive.


Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon, Andy. Good to be with you.


Andy Park: Joe Biden has found the time for Japan but not Australia or Papua New Guinea, as was his original schedule. Are you disappointed for Australia?


Simon Birmingham: Of course, it’s disappointing. It’s understandable given both the timing of Japan and G7 meetings over the weekend, whereas the Quad meeting was getting into the timeline for the next meeting of the US Congress so we can understand the reasons why it’s disappointing. There are two things I would hope that occur out of this. Firstly, that the mooted possibility of Quad leaders still meeting and having serious dialogue on the margins of the G7 occurs and that as much of the important discussions around the Quad can be salvaged in that opportunity. And secondly, that we do see a rescheduling critically, not just of a Quad summit of leaders hosted in Australia, but very importantly of that Papua New Guinea visit as you mentioned. It was a really important step where President Biden hosted Pacific Island leaders at the White House a little while back. And this was a really critical follow up for him to visit Port Moresby and meet with those Pacific Island leaders in Port Moresby. And I hope that the United States can give real priority to rescheduling that visit and ensuring that that engagement with the Pacific Island leaders happens as soon as possible.


Andy Park: I don’t mean to beat this up too much. And sure, Joe Biden is the elected president of the USA and they are facing a debt ceiling crisis, however predictable. But are you worried about the message that this sends to the Asia Pacific, given the kind of competition with China for influence in this region?


Simon Birmingham: I think most leaders will and most [line interrupted] accept the realities of internal political and budgeting processes and that ultimately they do have to take some degree of precedence and priority for the leaders of any country. But that doesn’t mean that the US is any less committed to our region to engagement with other countries. And it’s why the best thing that can possibly happen is for the United States, so far as is practical, to reschedule this as quickly as possible, and particularly to give that priority to ensuring that President Biden follows up on the meetings with Pacific Island leaders, reschedules those and that I trust the Albanese Government will be similarly urging the United States to seize the first opportunity to do that.


Andy Park: Speaking of China, Don Farrell recently came back from his trip. There were no hard commitments on barley and wine, but the Minister says he achieved what he set out to achieve. Do you welcome the fact that he had an audience with his counterpart?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve been consistent since the last election in welcoming the fact that China has ended its resistance to having any ministerial level dialogue with Australia. That was counterproductive, as are the trade sanctions that China put in place against Australia. Since then, though, we’ve had, of course multiple meetings. Our Prime Minister, our Deputy Prime Minister – the Defence Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Trade Minister, all of them having various levels of dialogue with their Chinese counterparts. And at some stage dialogue has to turn to outcomes. And what was disappointing from Minister Farrell’s visit recently was that we had more dialogue but not the type of breakthrough that will make a meaningful difference for barley producers, winemakers and others as subject to those sanctioned tariffs.


Andy Park: Sure, but at least there was dialogue and perhaps you could say more than under your government?


Simon Birmingham: As I said before, we’ve welcomed the dialogue, but dialogue is not the outcome. And dialogue is a means towards achieving outcomes and that is to be welcomed. And it was entirely counterproductive of China to cease dialogue previously. And the fact that they’ve resumed it, they’ve lowered the tone of the wolf warrior diplomacy, not just against Australia, but right around many parts of the world is welcome. But of course, this type of attempted economic coercion against Australia, which we have withstood so strongly, needs to come to an end. And China should be removing all of these sanctions, all of the tariffs they have imposed and honouring the terms and conditions of the free trade agreement with Australia that they voluntarily and willingly entered into, or we should be very clear here. China is in breach of its undertakings to the WTO. They are in breach of its undertakings to Australia and there shouldn’t be anything less than a complete removal of these sanctions and tariffs.


Andy Park:  Let’s move on to other matters. Your colleague Angus Taylor addressed the National Press Club today and said that the budget failed to treat the source of inflation. Jim Chalmers says his budget measures will actually bring inflation down. Who’s right here?


Simon Birmingham: Well, many different economists have backed up what Angus Taylor has said, and that is they’ve called the budget expansionary. They’ve said that it will put greater pressure on the Reserve Bank to further lift interest rates, and that’s come from a range of different banks, financial institutions, ratings agencies and the like. So it’s not just the Opposition making this comment, it’s coming from a range of economic commentators that putting so many billions of dollars extra into the economy is going to create pressure on the Reserve Bank. And that pressure will either see interest rates go up further or at the very least, as many have said, that they will stay higher for longer and that of course that means Australians will pay the price from it being higher for longer.


Andy Park: In his budget reply last week, Peter Dutton spoke at length about Australia’s working poor. But will the Coalition support the $40 increase to jobseeker payments if the working poor is such an issue for your party?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Peter Dutton outlined also in that speech was an alternative to the Government’s proposal. Which was given we have so many Australian businesses at present crying out for extra workers, given we have record lows in terms of unemployment that government inherited from the Coalition, that we ought to find a means to help those people remaining on JobSeeker into the workforce. And so I would urge the Government to look carefully at the alternative that we’ve put forward as a means to make people better off by enabling them to both keep more of some of the JobSeeker that they’re getting, but also to work more hours to get into the workforce. And what we’ve seen is that once people have the opportunity to start working to do a few hours, to do a few more hours under a proposal like this, it often then becomes a pathway off of JobSeeker altogether, as well as again, commentators and economists have indicated, being a measure that would genuinely provide some assistance in terms of easing constraints in the economy and therefore easing some of the pressure on inflation.


Andy Park: But going out and getting a job. I mean, it’s easier said than done. I mean, your colleagues, Angus Taylor and Deputy Leader Sussan Ley have both said that there are hundreds of thousands of jobs going wanting and that people on jobseekers should just go out and grab them by both hands. Do you really think it’s that easy?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I’m not saying that it is simple in all circumstances, but there is no doubt that there are many thousands of businesses across Australia looking for people to undertake jobs. You need only look at the signs in windows and on shop counters as you go about your daily life to see that there are businesses wanting to take on more employees. And what I would really encourage the government to do is make sure that they consider the alternative put forward by Peter Dutton and that in considering that alternative, they also look to how then you make sure you give every bit of assistance to Australians who need it to be able to seize and access those jobs that are available.


Andy Park: Just one more question before I let you go, Stuart Robert is retiring. He won’t return to Parliament. He’s absence has been criticised. Should he be present?


Simon Birmingham: He’s announced his retirement and resignation, I’m sure will formally come through in the near future as consistent with that.


Andy Park: Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time this afternoon.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Andy. My pleasure.