Topics: National Day of Mourning for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Russian escalation on war in Ukraine; Australian support for Ukraine; Australia-China relations; AUKUS; Sanctions on Russia


09:35AM AEST


Simon Birmingham:  This is a solemn day that we gather in Australia’s Parliament House, a day on which we will commemorate and celebrate the life of Her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second and give thanks for the contributions that she has made. And I acknowledge and the very appropriate ways in which the government has responded and to her death and ensured that all Australians have the opportunity to pause, to reflect and to give thanks for her life.

In the last 24 hours, we have seen some remarkable statements and actions from President Putin. These actions demonstrate that President Putin is a menace to the world, that he continues to advance in ways that threaten peace and stability across Europe and that reverberate in damaging ways right around the world. President Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine ought to cease. It ought never to have occurred. And the world must continue to apply maximum pressure to President Putin to ensure that he does withdraw troops and respects the territorial sovereignty and boundaries of Ukraine. His claims that the world has any interest in relation to impinging upon the territories or sovereignty of Russia are fanciful, they are wrong and the world is simply looking for the type of respect that is underpinning the United Nations Charter and that is demanded of all countries in relation to the territories and sovereignty of another nation. Not only are his actions illegal, but he threatens now the immoral use of nuclear weapons and the illegitimate use of referendum in relation to occupied territories. The immoral threats in relation to nuclear weapons are nothing but reckless, destabilising and indeed the types of actions that the whole world ought to [inaudible] to condemn and apply maximum pressure on him to cease from undertaking. The type of illegitimate finds and plans in relation to referenda will offer no sound basis for reading the verdicts of those peoples given the reckless use and the poor use and the failure of such actions by Russia in the past.

We have seen also in the last 24 hours, President Zelensky reiterate to the world the type of request for additional assistance that has been made here in Australia by Ukraine’s Ambassador to Australia. Australia has been the leading non-NATO contributor of assistance to Ukraine and we ought to remain so. We should be at the forefront of assistance to Ukraine. Australia’s response to Ukraine’s call for more assistance should come swiftly, positively and generously. The Albanese Government should make sure that Australia continues to give all we can to assist Ukraine in its military response, which to date has been a heroic defence of Ukraine, and ensure that we continue to provide other assistance, humanitarian and otherwise to assist Ukraine in its efforts. It is in Australia’s interests as it is in interests of nations all over the world, for Ukraine to succeed in defence of its sovereignty and territories and to uphold the type of international laws and rules in a way that can then deter others from ever acting in the type of way that President Putin and Russia have acted on this occasion.


Journalist: Senator you say Australia should continue to be the leading non-NATO partner or contribute to the war in Ukraine. Is that an endless commitment? I mean how long can we continue to put forward resources when there is potentially a conflict brewing in our own backyard?


Simon Birmingham: As I said, this is an important war. It’s an important war not just for the people of Ukraine and the defence of Ukraine, but for setting example. And the example set to date has been one of overwhelming commitment from the rest of the world to help a small nation, to help a small nation in defence of itself, to help a small nation through the provision of military assistance, to help that small nation through the application of sanctions against the aggressor in Russia. And we ought to see that continued level of support, because it is important to act as a deterrent to any others in the future.


Journalist: So it is an endless, as long as it takes kind of commitment that we should be making?


Simon Birmingham: There’s never a time to give up on the support for international rules and norms, on the support for sovereignty, territorial sovereignty and freedom of peoples.


Journalist: Senator, arrangements are still being finalised for Penny Wong to meet her Chinese counterpart, if that meeting was to go ahead, what would you like to see come out of that, especially in relation to territorial integrity as it stands with Russia, Ukraine and also with China and Taiwan ongoing dispute?


Simon Birmingham: I acknowledge that the Albanese Government has done the right thing. Continuing to reaffirm that although there has been a change of government in Australia, Australia’s national interests have not changed, that our strategic interests have not changed, and therefore with that there should be no change in relation to the application of policies that underpin those national and strategic interests of Australia. If China is now willing to engage in ministerial level dialogue and meetings with the new government, even though they’ve been unwilling in the past to do that with Australia. That’s welcome because all Australian governments, the previous one and this one, have been willing to have that type of dialogue. Notwithstanding disagreements, we should and ought be able to progress in areas of mutual interest.

It should be in our mutual interest to see peace and stability throughout the world and I would urge the Albanese Government to apply all encouragement to China. To use all influence China has to get Russia to cease and desist in its invasion of Ukraine and to urge Russia to lay down arms to come to the negotiating table and to provide for the best path to that peace and prosperity. China has remarkable potential influence that it can use in this regard and it ought to be encouraged and supported to do so.


Journalist: Senator, what assistance specifically would you like Australia to provide to Ukraine? The Ambassador suggested provision of those new Hawkeye vehicles. Would you support that particular, specific provision of donation or aid?


Simon Birmingham: It’s for the Government to determine what it can specifically provide, cognisant of the advice they will be receiving from the Australian Defence Force and our military, obviously. Clearly there will be some practical limits to what can be provided, but we ought to ensure that the responses we provide to Ukraine’s requests are responses that happen swiftly, positively, generously, so far as that is possible. Australia ought to give what it can and we ought to offer what we can to provide that support.


Journalist: Senator, the Ukrainian Ambassador has called for Australia to stop accepting Russian tourists and we start to see protests ramping up in the Russian home front. Are more drastic measures such as blocking people from Russia coming to Australia needed to put further pressure on the Russian government?


Simon Birmingham: We ought to be considering in concert with our partners around the world, the pursuit of further sanctions, further measures that can tighten the pressure further on Russia and particularly on President Putin in any way possible. So all options should be on the table in this regard, but they should, as with initial waves of sanctions and measures, be done in concert with international partners to make sure that applies maximum pressure on Putin and his regime.


Journalist: Senator, some very strong language from Vladimir Putin in his address. What was your personal reaction to some of the things that he said in that? What were the thoughts as you saw those comments?


Simon Birmingham: Well, these are deeply distressing, troubling remarks from President Putin. The whole idea and concept of the use of nuclear weapons and the type of ways that he intimates or suggests is something that is horrific to contemplate for peoples around the world. It is why pressure to deter him and to support Ukraine in its defence, to encourage other nations to intervene and act in ways that can help to bring this war to an end soon.


Journalist: Senator, just one quick one on AUKUS, if I might. We’re coming into the last, I think, six months before the consultation period ends and we’re deciding what submarine to go with. Do you expect either briefings or consultations with the Opposition yourself, the former Defence Minister, your current shadow defence minister, to be part of the decision making process at all or to put input in before the Government makes its decision?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I expect the Government to follow usual process examinations, revision briefings and move on in relation to sensitive defence matters. There are junctures at which those briefings occurred. They’re not usually junctures prior to decisions being made, but certainly junctures to ensure that the Opposition can understand the rationale behind decisions that are made. And I would urge the Government to make sure that it advances all aspects of AUKUS as quickly as possible. Those unrelated to securing nuclear-powered submarines, but also those that are related to it. The process put in place with a 12 to 18 month process for determining the type of boat and other related decisions for securing those nuclear-powered submarines. Not all decisions should have to wait till the last day of the 18 month period. And if there are some that can be advanced earlier in relation to construction of the shipyard and in relation to development of the workforce, all of those things ought to be done as quickly as possible to ensure that program is as successful as possible.


Journalist: On Ukraine again, you referred this morning to the limits that might exist or advice that the Defence Department is giving the Government about limits that might exist on Australia’s capacity to give material. Are you able to provide any more information about what sort of limits might be, might be there or what sort of constraints might be placed on Australia’s provision? Has the Opposition requested any briefings or been provided any briefings in this regard or was it a more general comment?


Simon Birmingham: The comment I made, Stephen is essentially [indistinct] of course there will be some limits to what the Australian Defence Force assesses Australia can provide without jeopardising our own operational capabilities at this point in time. But as I’ve stressed, we ought to make sure our response to Ukraine’s requests is one that is positive, generous and is swift. Any delay in relation to provision of support to Ukraine a critical time like this only plays into Russia’s hands. And so Australia, along with all other nations of the world willing to step up and support Ukraine, ought to be collaborating to do all we possibly can to support them, including responding to their requests as positively and quickly as we can.


Journalist: Senator, sorry, can I just ask for some more detail on the sanctions that you’re proposing? I know you’re saying it should be in step with the international community, but for people at home, what more can we do to sort of punish Russia in that international space? We’ve been putting in sanctions, we’ve been speaking about sanctions since February, even before we’ve seen rafts and rafts come out. You know, we don’t have a lot of exports with them. We’re going with this global oil cap. What else can Australia do? What areas should we target to make that more effective?


Simon Birmingham: Part of the reason that I underscore the importance of working in concert with international partners in relation to sanctions and actions against Russia is the reality that Australia’s trade, including tourism related trade with Russia is relatively modest. And so the type of work that we can do to tighten further where possible, any aspects of trade with Russia, any aspects that provide economic support to Russia is important, especially those that continue to target the major oligarchs and others who underpin financially the Putin regime and [indistinct]. Thanks, guys.