Topics: Government’s poor handling of Solomon Islands relationship; Chinese Ambassador 730 interview; Cheng Lei; UN human rights report on Uyghurs in Xinjian;


07:35AM AEST


Patricia Karvelas: Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister has issued an extraordinary rebuke to Foreign Minister Penny Wong on Australia’s offer to fund his country’s elections due next year. In a statement, Manasseh Sogavare says the pledge is an assault on his country’s democracy and an attempt at foreign interference. Senator Wong revealed the offer here on RN Breakfast yesterday.


Penny Wong: We have made an offer of assistance and it’s a matter for Solomon Islands as to whether they will respond and how they wish to respond.

Patricia Karvelas: So they are yet to respond?

Penny Wong: We’ve made an offer.

Patricia Karvelas: And do you expect it to be received positively?

Penny Wong: Well, it’s a matter for the government of Solomon Islands.


Patricia Karvelas: That’s the Foreign Minister Penny Wong speaking to ABC’s RN Breakfast yesterday. Senator Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister and joins us in the studio live from Parliament House. Simon Birmingham, welcome.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, P.K, good to be with you.


Patricia Karvelas: Was Australia right to make this offer to fund the national elections or is it an assault on democracy, as Prime Minister Sogavare says?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, the offer to assist with the elections is an entirely appropriate offer. The Government is doing what the previous Coalition government had done in 2019 and so the offer is appropriate. However, the execution of this offer appears to have been very poorly handled when you look at this reaction that has occurred from the Solomon Islands Government, which is an extraordinary statement, as you said … describing the actions of the Albanese Government and of Foreign Minister Penny Wong, particularly the actions in making this offer public, the way it has been made public as an assault on their democracy, as an attempt to influence their parliamentary processes. These are quite damning statements from the Solomon Islands Government and there is much now to be answered by the Albanese Government in terms of the way in which this offer was communicated, the discussions that have been had, the conditions or nature of this offer and why it was revealed in the public way it was when it was revealed.


Patricia Karvelas: Okay, so you support the offer, but you’re critiquing the way the offer was executed. What specifically do you think was wrong with the execution?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the offer, as I say, is consistent with past practice, not just in 2019-


Patricia Karvelas: So, what’s the problem?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the problem is clearly the reaction it has elicited. That in the past these offers have been clearly negotiated, accepted, part of common practice. Now, what has gone wrong here appears to be particularly criticism from the Solomon Islands about the making public of this offer and the fact that they are seeing it as an attempt to influence their own nation, their own democratic processes. And so, you have to ask, were the Solomon Islands aware this was going to be made public? Were they informed in advance of that? How long did they have to consider this offer?

I’m curious as to whether this offer has been around for some time, because the Solomon Islands statement seems to suggest that it was only made last week, whereas it’s been clear for a while that the Solomon Islands debate about the timing of their election has been ongoing for a while. And you would have thought that these discussions should have preceded last week, given the discussions that had already happened between them, Minister Wong and the Prime Minister.


Patricia Karvelas: So, you’re also critiquing- just to pin you down on that. You’re also critiquing that it was too late for it to happen last week.


Simon Birmingham: Well, I want to understand what discussions preceded the offer that the Solomon Islands say was only made on the 1st of September. You would have expected it to have been made much, much earlier, given the debates that have been occurring.


Patricia Karvelas: And so you think it should not have been publicly communicated? You don’t think that Penny Wong should have transparently revealed to the Australian public through a program like this that this funding offer had been made? I mean, this is public money.


Simon Birmingham: Well, if it was going to be publicly communicated, you would have expected that the Solomon Islands should have been aware that that was going to be the case as well. That if there was, from their perspective, an ambush in terms of public announcement, being seen in their country as public pressure on domestic policy matters, then you can see why this reaction has occurred. I want to make sure that we get to the bottom of how this has transpired. And right now, there were just many questions to be answered about how and when the government made the offer; what discussions occurred prior to the making of this offer; what discussions occurred about the making public of this offer; what advice was provided to the Solomon Islands government? Let’s understand this government is one who during the election campaign were very, very critical in relation to the handling of the relationship with the Solomon Islands Government and now this appears-


Patricia Karvelas: They were, and it seems this is imbued with a lot of politics.


Simon Birmingham: Now it appears as though they have taken a giant misstep in the relationship in the way they are handling it. And so clearly they’ve got to explain what has gone wrong here to elicit this extraordinary response from the Solomon Islands Government that sees them accusing Australia of interfering in the Solomon Islands democracy.


Patricia Karvelas: Could it be that the Solomon Islands Prime Minister could accuse Australia of this without provocation?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, I don’t want to ascribe motives to the Solomon Islands Prime Minister. The government of the Solomon Islands has issued this statement. They did it following the public statements that were made by the Albanese Government yesterday. That was clearly what prompted this public rebuke and response from the Solomon Islands Government. Their statement is very clear that it wasn’t the making of the offer that prompted the rebuke. It was the publication of the offer and the way in which it was published, apparently without any knowledge of the Solomon Islands Government.


Patricia Karvelas: All of this, of course, comes amidst fears the Solomon Islands is becoming a staging post for China. The two countries have a security agreement and last week US and British Navy ships were banned from docking in Honiara. Are we still a security partner of choice for the Solomon Islands? As Penny Wong says we are.


Simon Birmingham: The Solomon Islands Prime Minister has given that commitment both to the previous government and the current government. I welcome the fact that they clarified and made clear that Australian and New Zealand naval vessels would be able to continue to dock. I encourage them in relation to the process they’re going through around docking arrangements to make that possible for others. Noting that just recently they had a hospital vessel from the United States providing humanitarian assistance in the Solomon Islands and that those types of missions are important not just for the humanitarian aspect, but also for the important work in protecting the Solomon Islands fisheries that many countries such as Australia, New Zealand and others do to assist them with protection of their economic rights.


Patricia Karvelas: Last night, China’s ambassador Xiao Qian spoke to the ABC as you know. He said he feels personal sympathy for detained Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who hasn’t been able to speak to her children for two years. And I think any parent would hear that and just think what a heartbreaking story, this is an Australian citizen. Is there anything more the Government can do to try to get her released? And what did you make of his response?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, we’ve discussed the tragic case in relation to Cheng Lei before and I do urge China still to make transparent arrangements in relation to this case, to give some certainty in relation to the charges, the sentencing. But I do welcome the fact that the Chinese ambassador indicated that he has been making representations for her to have access to her children. That is encouraging and I encourage him to continue to do that strongly. And for officials in Beijing to show that humanitarian regard for her rights and interests and importantly, those of her children who are entirely innocent victims in this terrible story.


Patricia Karvelas: The ambassador said Taiwan wouldn’t be invaded unless it declared independence or it became clear unification wasn’t possible. Did that give you any confidence China wouldn’t act unilaterally?


Simon Birmingham: I think there were some deeply concerning aspects to elements of what the Chinese ambassador had to say last night. The fact that we are having these discussions about potential invasion of Taiwan or movement of military troops, I urge again China not to undertake any unilateral change to the status quo in relationship to Taiwan and to be mindful of the wishes of all involved, including the millions of people who live in Taiwan.


Patricia Karvelas: Penny Wong the Foreign Minister, described last week’s UN report on abuses against Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang as harrowing on this program. Have you read that report and do you have the same view? Is it harrowing?


Simon Birmingham: Yes, this is a deeply distressing report. The findings in relation to arbitrary detention, in relation to the targeting of Uyghurs, Muslim minorities and others across the Xinjiang province, are clear findings. They are distressing findings and they are findings with recommendations for actions which the Chinese government should adopt and act upon. I note the Chinese ambassador last night rejecting the report completely. If China has a view, as he has expressed, that the report is completely fanciful, well then the way for them to address that would be to open up access to Xinjiang. To allow for independent observers, transparency, interviews, access. These would be the ways to clarify this issue. But without that, then the only independent access that is there and verification of actions is indeed this United Nations report. And I urge the Albanese Government to continue to look closely at that and the action that should be taken by Australia. We have a long history going back decades of calling out human rights abuses around the world, including in relation to actions in China. We should not shy away from that. We have seen other countries-


Patricia Karvelas: Okay, so you say we shouldn’t shy away from that. Penny Wong did confirm yesterday the Government was considering action to take in coordination with our international partners. Do you think sanctions should be considered?


Simon Birmingham: I have encouraged that. That earlier this year under the Coalition Government, but with bipartisan support, Australia put in place additional options in our sanctions regimes via the Magnitsky type sanctions. They provide options. Other countries have previously acted in relation to Xinjiang, be they Canada, the European Union or elsewhere. And I urge the Government to look carefully at how it uses sanctions and other actions to respond in this regard.


Patricia Karvelas: The report says there are credible reports of torture and human rights abuses. Do you consider these actions to constitute crimes against humanity?


Simon Birmingham: The report makes those findings and says they may constitute crimes against humanity. I’m not going to sit here and be judge and jury in this regard. But clearly what has been happening in Xinjiang is something that would distress anybody who looked carefully at these matters. I have met with Australian Uyghur peoples and representatives only in recent days to discuss their concerns out of this report. I pay tribute to those who have sought to shine a light on these issues and have done so sometimes at great personal cost in terms of the pressure put upon them. And that’s why we need to make sure that we are resolute in terms of standing up for the proper processes the UN has followed in this regard, expecting that there should be clear access and encouraging China to adopt those recommendations, provide that access and in the absence of that, that governments like Australia should take a strong stance, including considering the use of sanctions.


Patricia Karvelas: Thank you so much for coming to the studio, Senator.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Patricia.