Topics: Mr Albanese meeting with Xi Jinping; Australia-China relationship; Russian missile kills Polish civilians; IR Bill to enter the Senate; Mr Albanese to meet with UK & France;

11:45AM ACST
16 November 2022


Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along today. Last night’s meeting between Prime Minister Albanese and President Xi Jinping is a welcome development. Indeed, it is welcome that at the G20 summit, the Chinese leadership has engaged with not only the Australian leadership but also critically the American leadership as well. And these developments provide some hope in what are still challenging times. And we should acknowledge that the strategic challenges of our time haven’t changed. But of course, dialogue is important. Dialogue is very important to have and it is far better to have people talking than to have a standoff. It was always counterproductive for China to refuse to come to the table for dialogue in recent times and their change of heart is welcome in that regard. Ultimately, the test of any dialogue will be in the outcomes actually achieved. Do we see progress in terms of the removal of China’s unfair trade sanctions against Australia. Will there be fairer treatment for Australians who are detained within China. Will we see China behave in a more responsible way in terms of its engagement in our region and respect for international laws and in it’s human rights activities.

These are all the big challenges for ongoing discussions. I hope and trust that just as President Biden has secured commitments in terms of further meetings and action and re-engagement on critical areas of cooperation between the US and China. That we can also see Australia secure similar further meetings and steps towards getting real action that would make things better for Australians who have been hurt by China’s attempts at economic coercion and unfair treatment of Australia recently.

Of course, we also have terrible news coming from Poland of what appears to be a Russian missile strike. This is deeply, deeply concerning and a reminder that war can escalate quickly and in ways that can have terrible consequences. And I note that President Biden and other NATO nations are looking closely and are going to work very, very closely with the Poland to understand precisely what has occurred and to carefully respond. Care in the response is important, but it is also a reminder as to why the world needs to be as united as possible in putting maximum pressure on Vladimir Putin to end his illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine. While G20 leaders are gathered together in Bali there needs to be as strong a statement as possible that this war must end, that Putin must pull back and he must try to achieve peace to ensure that we don’t see the type of escalation we can happen as a result of these sorts military activities getting out of control.


Journalist: What was your reaction when you heard the news about this strike in Poland?


Simon Birmingham: The potential to see Russia’s actions escalate into existing NATO nations is deeply troubling. We all know that that could lead to far worse conflict in the future. And that’s why it’s appropriate that the NATO membership work closely together, that they assess precisely what’s happened and that they take care in their response, but are also firm in their response. NATO to date has been firm in its support of Ukraine, strong in the delivery of assistance for many member nations, as indeed other countries like Australia have done so. And we need to continue to be resolute in standing up to Russia, telling Russia and putting the pressure on Russia to back of, to get out of this war. To respect international law and Ukraine’s borders. And of course, to act in ways that don’t risk a far greater war occurring than what’s already underway.


Journalist: On the meeting with China’s president, President Xi. Are you disappointed there weren’t more outcomes achieved on trade out of this meeting?


Simon Birmingham: You always have to be realistic about what can instantly be achieved. But the test of value in these talks will ultimately be whether there are outcomes that benefit Australia. Whether China’s attempts at economic coercion come to an end, that the trade sanctions are lifted and that the Australians detained in China are treated fairly. These are the tests the government will face in terms of whether the talks deliver real outcomes. Getting to the first base and having talks is welcome and always an important undertaking. But ultimately the test of diplomatic efforts is whether it can achieve real outcomes.


Journalist: I guess are you disappointed that there wasn’t more outcomes in this meeting?


Simon Birmingham: We’re realistic about what can be achieved from a first discussion. But we did see in the China-US talks 3 hours of talks, very frank exchange and progress in terms of commitments for future meetings, re-establishment of cooperative work in areas like climate change. I hope we pretty quickly see Australia receive similar types of commitments and action.


Journalist: But you accept our resolution to try to keep talking is better than nothing?


Simon Birmingham: Talks should always be on the table. It was always counterproductive of China to refuse to come to the table for talks. And you’ve got too make sure that that dialogue is there to be able to get breakthroughs. The strategic challenges that Australia faces, that the world faces from a more assertive China from the strategic competition between the US and China haven’t gone away after a couple of meetings. Those big long term challenges aren’t about to change, but critically, we should work where we can. And we should expect to see China end unfair, targeted actions, coercive attempts against Australia, particularly in trade, but also in the treatment of Australians detained in China.


Journalist: Do you think the former government was too tough on China?


Simon Birmingham: No, it was essential to undertake the action that occurred previously. And that’s why they are bipartisan actions that the now government continues to support. The stronger national interest test on foreign interference. The support that’s in place for critical infrastructure in Australia and protections there. The types of measures to protect our democracy from foreign interference and influence. These were all essential pillars put in place by the Turnbull and Morrison governments over a period of time to ensure that Australia is safeguarded in more challenging times. And those decisions, including specific ones in relation to companies like Huawei, were always going to ruffle feathers and cause tension. No doubt there will be future decisions that could equally ruffle feathers and cause tensions. But you’ve got to move beyond those. What Australia has demonstrated is that we have been resolute in the face of attempted economic coercion and we have stood by our national interest, by essential policy decisions, and I hope that China will recognise and respect that and engage now in ways that remove the attempts of coercion and enable us to work together and cooperatively where we can, where it is clearly mutually beneficial to do so.


Journalist: Tony Burke is pitching his industrial relations reform to the Press Club today. What are you expecting out of the Senate next week?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I hope that the Senate will continue to apply the necessary scrutiny to this rushed package of reckless reforms from Labor. What we are seeing is Labor attempting to ram industrial relations reforms through. Reforms that will only lead to more strikes and more strikes, less productivity and fewer jobs for Australians. And that’s the real threat there. You can see it from the near universal reaction of business in Australia towards the proposals for multi-employer bargaining and the way this is structured. Senate crossbench I would urge, don’t be pressured. Don’t be rushed. Stand your ground.


Journalist: Regarding the reports of a Russian missile strike in Poland. What should the government do while this is being investigated?


Simon Birmingham: Australia should work in absolute lockstep with NATO in the investigations into this missile strike on Polish soil and in terms of the response to it as well. The strength of the reaction to Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine to date has been in the unity of that reaction, and we must maintain that unity of effort. Australia, other democratic nations working with the NATO membership and seeking to bring others to the table. That’s why the G20 meeting happening at present is a timely opportunity for countries like China to make stronger statements, to put more pressure on Russia to back off. That is what is essential here now that we’ve had great unity across democracies and many other nations. But more can be done for some countries. Whilst President Xi Jinping is there with other leaders in Bali he should step up and apply extra pressure on Russia to end this illegal, immoral invasion of Ukraine. And in ending it not just stop the bloodshed and provide respect for international laws, but also to end the type of economic turmoil that it has been causing to energy markets around the world.


Journalist: Senator, I know that this is a hypothetical question, but it’s a question that many Australians would be asking today after hearing this news in Poland. Where could this conflict go?


Simon Birmingham: These are very troubling times. There have been troubling times from the very moment that Vladimir Putin pushed his troops across the border into Ukraine. They’ve been troubling times in terms of the threats of escalation and fears of use of nuclear weapons. And they’re troubling times now that it appears that Russian artillery has killed civilians in NATO states, in Poland. That is very deeply concerning. Because the risk of escalation is always immense. Any time a country is undertaking live military exercises that threatens another, the risk that it escalates into something far bigger is real and is something that needs to be handled very, very carefully. I have confidence that NATO will have conceded different contingencies and will respond carefully but firmly to this yet more aggression from Russia.


Journalist: And lastly, Anthony Albanese is meeting with leaders of France and the UK tonight. What do you hope comes from these meetings?


Simon Birmingham: There are some important tasks and outcomes that Anthony Albanese should be pursuing critically in talking with the United Kingdom. He should be working to make sure the Australia UK-FTA comes into force this year. We are cooperating with the Labor government here in Australia to make sure all the legislation necessary is in place and I urge Mr. Albanese to put all of his diplomatic effort into ensuring that the UK similarly completes its procedures and we get the Australian UK-FTA operational this year so that our exporters and British exporters can get the benefits that come from having that trade agreement in place. More generally, of course, there will be a range of important discussions. With the UK, France and no doubt other leaders in the margins of these discussions. discussions about how to advance the EU free trade agreement discussions as well, clearly about how as leaders we work together to continue to respond to the energy crisis and the war in Ukraine and now these terrible events since that affect Poland. Thanks guys.