Topics: Chinese ambassador NPC address; Australia-China relationship; Jobs summit;
Andy Park: Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister. Welcome back to our RN Drive. The new Albanese led Government hopes their election would provide an opportunity, if you like, to reset relations with China. The Ambassador did speak of their hopes to do so, but relations destined to fall further with China. Do you think?
Simon Birmingham: Well hello, Andy, it’s good to be with you. Certainly. We saw prior to the election from the some of the members of the new Albanese Government and indeed others elsewhere in the commentary. Perhaps some suggestions that a simple change of government, a change of tone or other things, it could provide an easy pathway to so-called resetting of relations with China. What I think everybody can see now is it’s actually not that simple. That as the previous government had been saying for a while things have changed, that the way in which China, under President Xi Jinping had approached its engagement with the region, the increased militarisation across the region, the build-up, particularly in the South China Sea of new base type infrastructure, the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong, the challenges to human rights and indeed, as we saw in Australia, things such as the economic coercion attempts through various trade sanctions made for a very difficult and challenging situation.
Andy Park: But Taiwan certainly does seem to be the sore thumb here at the moment. I want to play a little bit more of the ambassador and ask you what you think of this. Here we go.
Chinese Ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian: We cannot, we can never rule out the option to use other means. So when necessary, when compelled, we are ready to use all necessary means. As to what does it mean by all necessary means? You can use your imagination. We will never allow Taiwan to be separated from China.
Andy Park: Simon Birmingham. Is that a threat from China and should the Australian Government take it as such?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t think it’s a threat directed to Australia per se, but it certainly is essentially a form of threatening language when it comes to the attitude that is brought to Taiwan, and that’s deeply troubling and concerning. This type of heightened tension that we can see with the huge build up of military assets, the firing of ballistic missiles over the top of Taiwan, the incursions into established lines in relation to areas of economic zone or activity, including into areas of claimed territories of Japan as part of some of these military exercises. All of this creates enormous additional risk. And we should keep it in perspective. This is a response to a congressional delegation visiting Taiwan. It’s a response simply to people, parliamentary type exchanges taking place. There are many diplomatic reactions that countries can have if they’re unhappy with those sorts of things, from the recalling of ambassadors, the suspension of diplomats. Of course, a range of different ways in which grievances can be expressed. But to respond with such military action is risky. It risks mistake, military misadventure and all of that risks are real heightening of tension. That is what is so troubling at present.
Andy Park: So, are you saying that the Chinese government is too sensitive?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m certainly saying that we have seen a disproportionate reaction to a parliamentary or congressional delegation visit taking place. That this type of escalation by military means is risky and concerning, and that they should be ceasing those types of actions. If they wish to lodge protest against the United States in other ways, well that’s a matter between China and the United States. But it is of concern to the whole region and, frankly, to the whole world to see the type of military action that’s occurring.
Andy Park: Do you think Penny Wong has struck the right tone in her response so far to China’s military provocations in the Taiwan Strait?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t have any criticisms of Penny Wong as foreign minister in that regard. I acknowledge that she has responded and has sought to urge calm, made the same types of points I have about the need to de-escalate. She’s been in good company making comments with Japan, with the United States and the Biden administration. And those are broadly consistent with comments made by members of the G-7, Europe and elsewhere as well. And all of them really urging China to reconsider the military approach and instead to try to pursue avenues that have a better chance of maintaining peace and stability in the region. And from peace and stability, we all have the best potential to see prosperity rather than conflict.
Andy Park: The ambassador was also asked whether Australia would establish a military base in the Solomon Islands. He says there’s no intention to do so. Is that enough to satisfy any suspicion that there might be ulterior motives at play? Is it as done and dusted as China is wanting to make out?
Simon Birmingham: A constant vigilance will be required there and Prime Minister Sogavare provided commitments to the Morrison Government that even with the agreement struck between Solomon Islands and China, that he was not supportive of seeing any military base or infrastructure established in the Solomon Islands. I understand he’s provided the same assurance to the Albanese Government and those assurances are welcome. We respect the independence and the sovereignty of the Solomon Islands, but it’s important that they also stand up and protect their independence and sovereignty and not allow it to be eroded through such potential actions.
Andy Park: Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister here on RN Drive with Andy Park. Let’s move on to other issues like the jobs summit. Why have your party leaders such as Peter Dutton and Sussan Ley, refused the Government’s invitation to the jobs summit? I mean, Sussan Ley’s says it’s all a stunt. But isn’t your refusal to attend just a stunt in return?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t think, Andy, that what politicians attend the jobs summit matters terribly much. There’s a few things around the jobs summit that do matter. The first is to remember we’re at a point where the previous government got unemployment down to essentially 50 year lows. And so this job summit starts from a starting point, not so much when job creation is the primary objective, but job retention and making sure unemployment stays as low as we’ve got it. And from that, that we address skills gaps and create wages growth across the economy. And that’s what the government’s promising they seem to have back-pedalled on that a little in the last couple of months, but that’s the test of it, how it operates then. But what’s far more important for this job summit is that the government should be making sure they’ve got real, fair dinkum small business owners and operators sitting around the table at that summit, that it’s not just a bunch of union leaders, not just a bunch of representative bodies, but let’s make sure there are some real small business operators and owners there so that their voices are heard about the pressures they’re feeling, because ultimately they’re the source of jobs and productivity growth in this country.
Andy Park: Angus Taylor requested a seat at the table on July 11. I believe the BCA, the AI Group, major business owners will all be at this summit. Surely it’s in your interest to at least to be seen to be showing an interest, at least to be seen to be listening?
Simon Birmingham: Well, as the shadow foreign minister, I haven’t been party to any particular discussions about who is or isn’t attending from a political perspective. But as I said before, I don’t think the question of politicians attending the jobs summit matters terribly much if there’s legislation that has to be passed following it-
Andy Park: So it doesn’t matter if the Nationals leader. It wouldn’t matter if the Nationals leader, David Littleproud, goes along to the jobs conference as he said he would like to?
Simon Birmingham: That’s a that’s a matter for David. What I think-
Andy Park: Isn’t the matter that for the Coalition and their partner, is there a bit of a split in the approach from the Coalition these days?
Simon Birmingham: I don’t think to speak for the National Party at all. But as the Shadow Foreign Minister, I talk on behalf of the Coalition in relation to foreign policy matters. Beyond that, though, as the test of the job summit is not about political engagement, it’s about whether or not it succeeds in bringing together aspects of business and unions. And that shouldn’t just be about bringing together representative organisations. It should be making sure that they hear loud and clear and test any policy proposals with real, fair dinkum small businesses on the ground who are often far too busy simply running their businesses, employing their staff and keeping on going day to day to spend time engaging in industry bodies or the like. But I hope the government will find a pathway to ensure those voices are heard because they’re the critical ones about whether any proposals out of this are going to be worthwhile or not.
Andy Park: You talk about critical voices and by refusing to participate, don’t you forgo any criticism of the policy which may come from the summit, which, you know, carries a bit of political weight? I mean, you have the opportunity to bring any concerns about future policy at this summit and influence it in its infancy. And you’re not taking it up.
Simon Birmingham: Well, if there’s legislative proposals that come out of it, they’ll all be considered in the normal way, and they’ll have to pass through the parliament in the normal way. As coalition parties we will, over the next two and a half years, develop the policies that we take to the Australian people at the next election. So our interest is not necessarily one of informing the Labor Party’s policies to date. We have to make sure that we work long and hard to present a compelling case in three years time and that we learn the lessons from the last election. But if the Government brings forward proposals out of this, and if they are sensible proposals and genuinely have a support across the board and will be good for job creation, wages growth, small business growth in Australia, then of course we’ll look at them constructively.
Andy Park: Simon Birmingham, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, good to talk. Thanks for your time.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Andy. My pleasure.