Topics: President of Philippines; Australia’s Red Sea response; ASIO DG warnings;

08:45AM AEDT
29 February 2024



Simon Birmingham:  Thank you. Just a couple of quick comments before I get into meetings this morning. But I did want to acknowledge it’s a very important day for the Parliament with President Marcos of the Philippines making an address to a joint sitting. That seems symbolically important on a couple of levels. Of course, important for the bilateral relationship between Australia and the Philippines, which is a century plus strong relationship and engagement that is critically important in a range of spheres. The Philippines is a particularly strong regional partner who has worked closely with Australia, who has been a strong supporter of AUKUS, who works to uphold international rules and laws within our region and particularly supports the UN convention on the Law of the Sea. Which is essential to underpinning the type of regional stability and free flow of shipping trade throughout our region. It also denotes the start of the ASEAN-Australia Summit next week, a summit that is the second such event, the first of which occurred under Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership and is an important pillar in terms of the strength of the Australian relationship with the network of Southeast Asian nations, a bloc that is such a vast and significant economic power and, of course, critical to our regional security. We look forward the opportunities to engage in dialogue with many of the visiting ASEAN delegations over the course of the next week.


Journalist: What do you think about the latest contribution by the ADF? Six more people heading over to the Middle East.


Simon Birmingham: Look, additional contributions are welcome, but the reality remains that Australia’s contribution remains underweight relative to where we should be in terms of providing essential support in the Red Sea by being part of the maritime operations. Australia’s contribution is being remarked upon by many commentators as being below par with where Australia has been historically when asked by the United States to make such contributions. When we look at the reality that 12% of the world’s shipping flows through the Red Sea. That is an essential part of ensuring that trade flows are open and secure. It’s a big part of our conversations with the Philippines. It’s a big part of what’s important in the Red Sea to.


Journalist: Being more specific. What do you think, Australia- How do you think Australia should be contributing? How many people, what resources?


Simon Birmingham: Well, from Opposition, you’re not able to go to the lengths of detailing precisely how many people, frequency or tempo of operations. But Australia really should be part of the naval operations in the Red Sea. Providing security of passage for vast amounts of international trade, including trade, is essential to Australia.


Journalist: Senator, do you think the former politician that the ASIO boss referred to last night should be named?


Simon Birmingham: A couple of points on that. I think that Mike Burgess, for a number of years now, the ASIO Director General, has been very clear that foreign interference and espionage has surpassed terrorism as the number one security threat facing Australia. It is incumbent upon all of us as politicians to be mindful of that. It’s incumbent upon our staff, our families, media and all across this building and to engage with it, to be mindful and to heed the warnings in terms of how people engage and to be alert for potential instances of foreign interference and espionage. I think Mike Burgess and the whole network of security agencies do an incredibly powerful and important job protecting our nation, and we respect their capabilities and their work. I think in terms of the statements made last night, they reveal the significance of the challenge and indeed the sophistication of some of the operations. There absolutely would be benefit, though, in ensuring that not all former politicians carry some sort of smear or smirch upon them. And so the Home Affairs Minister should make a statement to the House, providing as much detail as is possible to provide clarity around this and to avoid that type of smear against all serving or all former politicians.


Journalist: Should that include the name of the former politician?


Simon Birmingham: Ultimately, we have to encourage the government who will have access to more information than we can from Opposition to provide as much clarity as possible. But there is clearly significant public interest in this matter. That public interest deserves to be addressed as transparently as possible. The Minister for Home Affairs should step forward, provide that information as much of it as possibly can.


Journalist: What do you think of the conduct of this?


Simon Birmingham: It is clearly reprehensible for anybody knowingly to be engaging in providing information, assistance or otherwise to foreign governments in ways that can undermine Australia’s security or the integrity of our system of government. And as I said before, it is clear that all of us need to be alert, aware, careful in our engagements, because much of the work of those who engage in espionage and foreign interference is, of course, covert, it seeks to engage in ways that isn’t obvious to the person being targeted. That is why receiving the briefings and being aware of how these types of operations can occur is so essential to be aired publicly to raise awareness of the threat, which is why the Director General is absolutely within his rights to make sure he does raise awareness of the threat and the challenges so that all, be they politicians or anybody working across the government landscape, public servants, media, staffers, others are all completely aware of their responsibilities and the need to be alert. But when it comes to having cited a particular instance in the way in which it was cited, more information, if it can be forthcoming, should be provided. It is for the Minister for Home Affairs to use the protection and privileges of Parliament, perhaps to be able to do that.


Journalist: Joe Hockey says as a former politician, he feels besmirched. Can you understand that? That sentiment.


Simon Birmingham: I can completely understand that sentiment. That is why, to ensure that those who feel besmirched feel like their reputation is unfairly being stained, the government should provide as much clarity as possible and do so as quickly as possible.


Journalist: What about doing this with closed- What about doing this with closed committee, for example, of Parliament, the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security? Would that be adequate?


Simon Birmingham: PJCIS provides pathways to perhaps explore in greater detail, but clearly it does not remove the question mark that now hangs over all former politicians. And if there is means for the government to remove that question mark by making a statement to the House, then they should do so.


Journalist: Do you know who this person is?


Simon Birmingham: No.


Journalist: Do you have your suspicions?


Simon Birmingham: Look, obviously plenty of questions will be asked, particularly given some of the stories that have been well publicised in the past about certain former members of Parliament, their departure from this Parliament and the like.


Journalist: Might be one of them?


Simon Birmingham: It might be, but I don’t know.


Journalist: Did you know about this incident prior to last night?


Simon Birmingham: Not this particular incident, but of course, I, like other former members of the National Security Committee as well as anybody, frankly, who has followed ASIO’s advice over the last few years knows full well this is the escalating threat. This is the activity that we are seeing from foreign operatives in Australia who are targeting individuals of influence to extract information to use against Australia. That is a dangerous activity that we face against Australia. It is reprehensible for anybody to engage with foreign operatives in any knowing way that endangers Australia’s interests, and we ought to have as much transparency around that as can possibly be given. Thanks, guys.