Topics: Labor weak on Red Sea response; UN Security Council vote; Israel-Hamas conflict;

07:35AM AEDT
21 December 2023


Sally Sara:  Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. Senator, welcome to Breakfast.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning. Sally. Great to be with you.


Sally Sara: Senator, you’ve just heard retired Admiral Chris Barrie say that the government has made the right call. Do you agree?


Simon Birmingham: No, Sally, we believe that there are reasons why the Albanese Government should be looking more favourably upon this request, and certainly should be being more transparent about the reasons for its inaction. Ultimately, Australia has many significant interests, particularly related to the Red Sea. Australians will feel economic impact from this disruption that’s occurring. More than 12% of global trade flows through the Suez Canal and therefore the Red Sea, and we’re seeing shipping company after shipping company now because of the actions of Houthi rebels, say that they are going to divert their ships. Those diversions add many, many days to carriage of freight around the world. And those many days of extra fuel, of extra staffing costs all add up to extra costs that will flow through to global inflation, just at a time when Australians can no longer afford to pay for that inflation. There are, of course, greater regional challenges as well. The Houthi rebels are backed by Iran, just as Hamas is backed by Iran, just as Hezbollah is backed by Iran. There is a concerted effort when you then look at Iranian support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to create an environment of destabilisation, an environment that can hurt not only the global economy, but also, of course, create destabilisation politically and a range of different ways as well. And we should be standing alongside of our allies and partners to push back against that type of destabilisation and to provide the type of security that can underpin our economic wellbeing and global economic wellbeing.


Sally Sara: Are you sure that Australia has the resources and if so, what should be sent?


Simon Birmingham: Well Sally, that is a disturbing fact if we have to ask that question and the Albanese government’s actions to date are exposing Australia to perceptions of indecisiveness and/or inability in our national security capacity and undertaking. The idea is, the Prime Minister said yesterday that the US understands that we can best help diplomatically, just doesn’t really pass muster. Does anybody really think that the Australian government has some effective diplomatic back channel to the Houthi rebels in Yemen? Ultimately, what is needed here is practical security for international freight to be able to safely pass through one of the busiest freight channels in the world. You have to ask why Australia not only would be unable to join the United States, but also unable to join the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, Norway, France, Italy, and many countries that we would routinely and reliably partner with to help provide such security.


Sally Sara: Well, Senator, as you know, defence procurement takes a long time and defence recruitment takes a long time. Does the Coalition hold some responsibility? If there is a lack of resources and a lack of accruing, as is the fear, we’re now seeing the results of those investments. You were finance minister during some of that time.


Simon Birmingham: And during the course of our government, we made many defence procurement decisions in relation to new frigates in relation to new patrol vessels, in stepping up the programme of procurement that had, during the Rudd-Gillard years, seen not one Australian made vessel being contracted and undertaken. So, we made sure that we planned for the future. But the Royal Australian Navy has numerous vessels operational at present across a range of capabilities. Now, if the Government is saying that practically we cannot, then they should be open and upfront about that. That’s not what the Prime Minister said…


Sally Sara: What do you think should be sent?


Simon Birmingham: Sally, I’m not going to leap to the operational decision there. That is one for the Navy to rightly advise the government on what capabilities it has available.


Sally Sara: Admiral Chris Barrie was saying yesterday, as we know with aircraft and ships, that sending one ship really is sending three ships. We’re sending one over, we have one there and we have one coming back. Do you see… You know that our capabilities do. We have three vessels to send at this time appropriately to that region? The reality of what we have.


Simon Birmingham: Sally, if that’s the rationale of the Government’s stance, let them clearly state that and let them explain that clearly to the Australian people. That is nowhere near what the Prime Minister put yesterday when he was asked about it, he ducked and dodged and evaded and came up with this formulation of words that Australia’s best contribution is a diplomatic one. He needs to be clear and capable of talking about what those operational limitations are if that is indeed the case. Or if they’re not operational limitations, then explain why it is that Australia is missing in action in responding to this request and this challenge, that whilst further away than our region, let’s remember also that we welcome military engagement in our region by many of the partners that we’re talking about, that we encourage visits to our region, not only by the United States, but also encourage visits to our region by many other European partners like France and the United Kingdom. They all would not unreasonably expect that it cuts both ways, especially when you’re looking at freight routes like the Suez Canal and the Red Sea that are so integral to trade between Asia and Europe.


Sally Sara: Senator, in reality is this about priorities rather than being everywhere? Many of the listeners would note that it was the Coalition that ceased our annual deployment of a Navy ship to the Middle East. It was HMAS Toowoomba, which was the last one to return in 2020. If we can’t be everywhere, should we be closest to home?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we always have to prioritise in all of our actions and we of course, acknowledged that. The decisions made at that time, though, reflected the strategic environment then. That strategic environment, sadly, has worsened in recent times. I went through before the range of different threats, the largely Iranian sponsored threats that are increasing in the Middle East. Whilst this region may be further away from us than our usual operational channels through the Indo-Pacific, the reality is it is a region where we have deep interests because of those trade routes. As I said before, the vast volume of trade between Asia and Europe that flows specifically through there. We are an Asian trading nation, and we rely either directly or indirectly on our exports and our imports or our inputs into the exports of other Asian nations being able to reach that region.


Sally Sara: Senator, we will need to move on. As we’ve heard this morning, the UN Security Council vote on the suspension of hostilities in Gaza has been suspended again. What sort of compromise is acceptable to get the US on board, and what does that mean for the conflict?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I can’t speak specifically for the US and their position, but I would expect that they, as they have indicated previously, would want clear condemnation of Hamas, clear expectations in relation to Hamas releasing hostages, Hamas releasing, uh, and surrendering its military capabilities and its governance architecture in Gaza to provide for more enduring opportunities for peace in the region. If there is to be a ceasefire, the only ceasefire that is a sustainable one to provide for opportunities for peace is one where Hamas no longer has the ability to launch the types of terrorist attacks that we saw on October 7th. Killing more than 1,200 people just because they were Jews, targeting deliberately children, babies, the elderly and others, and noting that Hamas has publicly repeated its desire to repeat those activities and a ceasefire without seeing those types of conditions upon Hamas, is a ceasefire in which Hamas will only rearm, regroup and do as it said it wants to – repeat the types of atrocities all over again.


Sally Sara: Senator, you’re a former deputy chair of the parliamentary association for UNICEF. The UN spokesperson, James Elder, who’s Australian, was in Gaza and says it’s the most dangerous place in the world to be a child. Do you agree?


Simon Birmingham: I am sure it is, if not the then one of the. We shouldn’t forget the types of military combat and operations happening in a range of different parts of the world, and my heart grieves for all children in those sorts of zones, be they in Gaza, be they the children lost in Israel on October 7th, or of course, be they children in Ukraine or Myanmar or Sudan, or a range of other hot spots around the world. Tragically, conflict happens, it happens for a variety of reasons. In this case, it’s happening because of the actions of Hamas on October 7th and Israel’s need to remove that threat, which, as Hamas demonstrated, is a threat to children now and in the future. We shouldn’t forget the way in which Hamas operates with tunnel network estimated to be bigger than the New York subway system that they don’t use to protect children in Palestine. They use for Hamas terrorists to hide in and to ambush Israeli soldiers whilst keeping children and other innocent civilians above ground, exposed in harm’s way as human shields. Quite tragically.


Sally Sara: Senator, we need to leave it there. Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time this morning.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you. Sally. My pleasure.