Topic:   Former Russian embassy site; Appointment of National Cyber Security Coordinator; 

12:35PM ACST
Friday, 23 June 2023


Simon Birmingham:  Thanks very much for coming along. Just over a week ago, the Opposition worked with the Government to pass through the Australian Parliament, in very swift time, important legislation to ensure that a critical piece of land with a high degree of proximity to the Australian Parliament would not be the site of a future Russian embassy. We did so having received appropriate briefings from the Government and informed by those briefings and particularly the national security risk that was presented were Russia to establish a new and modern embassy in such proximity to the Parliament and to other government institutions.

Now what we’re seeing is a quite peculiar situation in terms of the occupancy of that land. I want to be very clear. If the law of Australia has terminated Russia’s lease on that land, then Russia should not be occupying that land. Every Australian expects Australian law to be upheld and to be upheld fairly and equally for all. We shouldn’t tolerate anybody seeking to make any type of fool of Australia in relation to the application of Australian law. So in this regard, if Russia’s lease has been terminated, as the laws were intended to do, Russia should not be occupying this piece of land. The Government should be very clear about that and clear in terms of its actions. The Coalition will give bipartisan support to the Government, taking all possible legal steps to ensure that the law of Australia is upheld and applied equally to all. Of course, this matter should be taken step by step and that’s appropriate. But the Parliament’s been very clear in backing the Government and sending a clear message that Russia is not welcome to have an embassy on this land. If they’re not welcome to have an embassy on the land, they’re not welcome to be occupying the land either and it’s not within the law for them to be doing so.


Journalist: Would you support this man being moved by force if necessary?


Simon Birmingham: Well, all diplomats are expected to comply with legal requests and orders given to them when they are in visiting countries. And so if such a request is given, then we should expect compliance in that regard first and foremost. It’s not yet clear whether such a request has been given, but the government should be looking at and authorities should be looking at all legal avenues available to them to ensure that the law is respected and adhered to.


Journalist: What are some of those legal avenues that the government can go down to remove him at this stage?


Simon Birmingham: Well, first and foremost, you would expect that appropriate requests or orders to vacate a piece of land would be given. That’s the logical first step. Again, it’s up to the government as to how they apply that working appropriately through the different law enforcement agencies. We backed those agencies to do their job thoroughly and appropriately. But Mr. Albanese this morning seemed to think this was something of a humorous or a laughing matter. It’s not a humorous or a laughing matter. These are important matters that relate firstly to national security in terms of the embassy on this site, but secondly, they go to whether Australian law is then respected and applied equally to all, and it should be in this case.


Journalist: Would the Opposition want the Government to declare this person a persona non grata?


Simon Birmingham: Well, those sorts of steps are many steps down the track in terms of what could be considered or taken. First and foremost, we have a clear law passed through the Australian Parliament just a week ago and that says Russia is not entitled to this land and therefore Russia should not be occupying this land. That law should be upheld. It should be upheld through the types of steps such as our authorities, Australian authorities, giving a request and if need be, an order to vacate the land. If that is then refused or not acted upon, other steps can then be considered from there.


Journalist: What are those other steps if all legal avenues are exhausted. What do we do then?


Simon Birmingham: Well, ultimately, you just had a question that touched upon the fact that there are means by which diplomats can be asked or expected to leave a country. It doesn’t appear that we’re at that stage yet, although I note that in unrelated matters before the Albanese Government was elected, Penny Wong and Anthony Albanese were very strong in calling for the expulsion of Russian diplomats. So, they talked a big game before coming to government and we ought to expect them to ensure that Australian law is applied with and complied with now they are in government.


Journalist: What do you make of the Prime Minister saying a bloke standing on a blade of grass does not constitute a national threat to security?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it just doesn’t feel as if the PM is taking this matter seriously. He seems to want to cast it aside as a bit of a joke, a bit of a laugh. This ultimately is a simple case of whether the law of the land is being complied with, and the Prime Minister ought to expect that to be the case and he ought to take that seriously.


Journalist: What do you think this means for our diplomatic relationship with Russia right now?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we have many significant challenges in terms of the relationship with Russia and the Australian government. Both the previous Morrison government and the Albanese Government has been clear in giving the strongest possible condemnation to Russia’s actions through its illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine. And we have also been very concerned in relation to cyber attacks and other areas of Russia’s activities internationally. Those messages need to be continued to be conveyed. As an Opposition we have become very concerned that the Albanese Government has provided no additional humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, no additional energy assistance to Ukraine, limited edition military assistance to Ukraine, and failed to turn up to key international conferences in support of Ukraine. I and the Opposition call upon the Albanese Government to deliver a new and comprehensive package of military and humanitarian and energy assistance to Ukraine to make sure that Australia continues to support Ukraine in defence of its sovereignty, in defence of international rules and laws and norms, and ultimately in response to Russia’s illegal, immoral and inhumane invasion that we’ve seen undertaken.


Journalist: You mentioned cyber security. What is your response to the Government appointing an Air Force commander to be the country’s national cyber security coordinator today?


Simon Birmingham: We congratulate Air Marshal Goldy on his appointment and look forward to him continuing his distinguished service of Australia. But it is disturbing that this appointment, which was due in March, has actually only now come about in June. That is a delay that is seen in the interim, Australia face further cyber security challenges and exposures, and we could have had the new chief on the block doing his work right now had the appointment been made in March rather than delayed by the Albanese Government.


Journalist: I’m just going back to the Russian diplomat. As far as you know, has there been any communications from the Russians?


Simon Birmingham: Look, there are questions really for the Government and the Government should be fronting up and taking those sorts of questions seriously, not joking them off to one side.


Journalist: Sorry. So back again, jumping back and forward. But the government has confirmed that it’s not going to release the Mrdak review. Are you comfortable with that decision considering it does contain such sensitive information?


Simon Birmingham: We expect maximum transparency from the government. Of course, there are always issues of national security that we respect and that we welcome briefings on from time to time. But the Government, if they’re not releasing, clearly that type of information, ought to be transparent with Australians about what they can share, the findings that can be shared and ensure that they are applying with the utmost speed and urgency measures in terms of the nation’s cybersecurity. Not dragging their heels on appointment of a coordinator promised months ago.


Journalist: I’ve got two questions on the phone, if that’s okay? Firstly, should power, water and access to food delivery be turned off on the embassy site? And [indistinct] declared persona non grata?


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Rhiannon. So, in terms of the first question in relation to the type of power, water access, food deliveries, et cetera. First things first. It’s against the law to be occupying land that you don’t hold a lease or any other type of arrangement over, and so the law should be upheld. Legal requests to ensure that land is vacated should be made, and those appropriate orders should be given by the relevant authorities, police authorities or other security and enforcement agencies. If they’re not compliant with well, then other steps can be considered. Those steps could be in terms of ensuring that access to the type of support services to occupy that land is not maintained and that type of access being denied would be one avenue that could be considered. Of course, ultimately, as I said before, many steps down that pathway, you have the option to remove from Australia a diplomat who refuses to comply with lawful orders and lawful requests. They are some steps away but the Albanese government did talk a big game when they were in opposition about expelling diplomats. Now what we’re asking them to do is ensure they uphold the law of the land.