Topics: Pelosi visit to Taiwan; Australia’s defence capability; Emission reduction targets;
Patrcia Karvelas: You’re listening to ABC RN Breakfast. Well, troubled defence projects face the axe under what the Government describes as the most comprehensive review of defence in decades. And it comes as the risk of conflict with China only intensifies and Beijing’s fighter jets are flying across the Taiwan Strait to protest US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit. Joining us now is, well, the recently appointed Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. I don’t know if I can use the word new anymore. It’s been a couple of months since the election. Simon Birmingham, who is just getting into the chair. It’s a sitting week, of course, so they literally swap chairs and seats in between interviews. Simon Birmingham, welcome to the program.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Patricia. I’ve done a bit of swapping chairs and seats in the last couple of months.
Patrcia Karvelas: Yes. Boom, boom. I like how you did that. Do you believe us? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was a was needed to show China can’t isolate the island or was it unnecessary in an escalation of tensions?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, this is a continuation of visits. There have been numerous congressional visits from the US to Taiwan over recent years. Nancy Pelosi is a member of Congress. She’s the Speaker of the House, but she is also a member of Congress, and she’s leading this particular congressional visit. Now, it’s a matter for her and the US Congress in terms of the decision to, to include Taiwan on their agenda for this itinerary. That’s between them and Taiwan. But certainly responses to it should really be kept in proportion to what is simply a visit. And the escalation of military activity. And the build up we’re seeing is of concern and somewhat disproportionate to simply the visit that has been undertaken.
Patrcia Karvelas: So do you think on balance, the visit was worth it?
Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s for Nancy Pelosi and those participating in the visit to make their determination-
Patrcia Karvelas: This is our region. Do you think that it improves the situation or are you worried about it?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m worried about the fact that we have seen a significant build up of military activity, an escalation involving live firing exercises, activities that have occurred within the economic zone of Taiwan and those sorts of crossing of lines that do then enhance the risk of there being some sort of miscalculation or misstep or misadventure in relation to military activities. The risk that that could then lead to further escalation. These are all points of grave concern. And it’s why I would urge that a sense of proportionality be kept in relation to the response to what is simply a visit. And this escalation of military activities is disproportionate to simply a visit that has been undertaken. Now previously, governments in Australia have raised concerns where we’ve seen heightened military tensions and activities, and I would urge this Government to make sure that they express similar sentiments.
Patrcia Karvelas: And you say you’d urge the Government to say similar things to what you’ve just said. Do you think they have been?
Simon Birmingham: Well, look, these sentiments are messages conveyed usually by diplomats and officials. So it’s a matter for the government to be doing that behind the scenes and to make sure that in urging for parties to de-escalate and to minimise the risk of any type of misstep or miscalculation, that they are clear in terms of the position they take with those involved.
Patrcia Karvelas: Just on the other issue, experts doubt the Collins class submarines can be extended for long enough to meet Australia’s needs before the nuclear submarines are ready. Do we need to be looking at an off the shelf model?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, it’s crucial, first and foremost, that we get the nuclear powered submarines in place as quickly as possible. And I look forward to the government working within the timelines that were set when AUKUS was first signed to do that. In terms of delivering capability in the meantime, the life of type extension to the Collins class will ensure that the Collins class remains one of the most capable and sophisticated pieces of defence capability within our region and will ensure they have a significant extension to their life. The Government’s got to have a look clearly in relation to the delivery of those nuclear powered submarines when they make the decision about which boat and the terms of that as to precisely what that timeline looks like then.
Patrcia Karvelas: Angus Houston says Australia’s deteriorating security environment is the worst he’s ever seen. What responsibility do you take for that, given you’re in government for nine years?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Angus Houston was reflecting on the security environment we face within our region. It wasn’t any Australian government, Labor, Liberal or otherwise who created a rise in military activity across our region-
Patrcia Karvelas: No, but not being prepared with the ten years is the point that Richard Marles also made, that having that sort of ability to respond, we’re now actually in a precarious position. Do you take responsibility for being part of a government that didn’t equip us to be ready?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t accept that, Patricia. And so first and foremost, let’s just be clear in terms of Angus Houston’s reflection there was on the tensions we face in the region, the build up in relation to the South China Sea, all of those issues and of course the rise of autocracies and the role they’re playing. In relation to Australia’s defence preparedness for that, our Government did succeed in relation to commissioning and delivering naval vessels that now are coming off of production lines in Australia. We grew Australia’s defence spending from what the previous Labor government had cut to the lowest level since 1938, back to 2% of GDP. You wouldn’t have an AUKUS agreement if we hadn’t restored the defence budget because we wouldn’t have been a credible partner to sign on to such an agreement. We invested in relationships in the region to enhance security such as the Quad, something that Kevin Rudd walked away from and then successive Coalition governments there invested that to move it from an officials dialogue to a ministerial dialogue and ultimately to a leaders dialogue. So I think the security relationships, the defence investment, the procurement activities we undertook were indeed very significant during the nine years of government and turned around what had been defence cuts, procurement delays and inaction and stepping away from security partnerships during the Rudd-Gillard years.
Patrcia Karvelas: Just finally on the climate change bill, Bridget Archer will cross the floor and support Labor’s bill. She says this isn’t a left right issue. What’s your response to that? Do you support it?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I have nothing but respect for Bridget and I can understand how she has come to that conclusion. From my perspective, if the 43% target required legislation, then I would have wanted to vote for it in a heartbeat. However, it doesn’t require legislation. You’ve had Chris Bowen explain that to your listeners many times over now and indeed Anthony Albanese himself has said the Government could have lived with the legislation or lived without the legislation. So in that sense I have come to the conclusion to what is important there is the target itself.
Patrcia Karvelas: Let me pick you up on- You would have voted on it in a heartbeat? So it means that you think that that’s the reasonable reduction that Labor’s come to?
Simon Birmingham: I think the important element there is support for higher ambition in reducing emissions and critically I support that. Peter Dutton has been clear following the deliberations the Coalition’s had this week that we will be taking a greater level of ambition to the next election and the test will now be in terms of that policy, making sure that it is a genuine policy for higher levels of emissions reduction backed by credible policies attached to that. And that’s the work that I look forward to us undertaking over the next couple of years.
Patrcia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia. My pleasure.