Topic(s): Ukraine

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon, Jim. It’s good to be with you as always.

Jim Wilson: Oh, it’s terrible. It’s terrible what’s unfolding. And as acting Foreign Minister, we know that there are Australians in Ukraine. Do we know if any of them? What’s the state of play there as far as any reports of casualties?

Simon Birmingham: We have no reports of Australian casualties at this time, Jim. Now, as your listeners know and as you know, we’ve been providing advice that people should leave Ukraine for some weeks now. We’ve been very clear in that and we’ve given every effort of diplomatic and consular assistance to individuals to do so. And although we have relocated Australian diplomats out of Ukraine and they’re operating out of Warsaw in Poland now, we continue to give that sort of assistance. But obviously individuals, many of whom are dual nationals, Ukrainian Australians have chosen to stay for a range of reasons, but we’ll continue with the consular help where we can. And of course, be more comprehensive with the responses that we’re giving across the Ukraine situation.

Jim Wilson: So the prime minister has announced additional sanctions today, round three of the sanctions on more than 300 members of Russia’s parliament, as well as sanctions on neighbouring country Belarus. The threat of sanctions didn’t stop them going ahead with the invasion. So do you think sanctions go far enough?

Simon Birmingham: Given the sanctions regime is about isolating Russia as effectively as we can, particularly its leadership and its military and financial establishments And because through that isolation, maximum pain and hardship to drive a reconsideration of their position, President Biden has indicated the types of sanctions the US has applied, which mirror those Australia’s applying now freeze trillions of dollars’ worth of assets. They have significant impact in terms of the way the financial systems operate across Russia. We saw the Russian share market collapse by around 40 per cent in trading last night. And so that shows that they do have an impact. Now, of course, they haven’t prevented Putin from undertaking this war on Ukraine, this despicable and horrific act. But as we’ve seen in the past, if people think about the way of sanctions applied against South Africa through the period of apartheid, eventually you do drive division in a country, change in a country. And that, of course, is what we’re trying to do. Hopefully much faster than that in this circumstance. But it’s why our Prime Minister has upped the ante today, calling for other countries to look at how the financial transactions systems could be brought into this. Also calling for international sporting organisations to show leadership and to pull their events from Russia.

Jim Wilson: Sure, you’re part of the National Security Committee. I mean, we’re now sending non-lethal military equipment to Ukraine. Have we been asked to provide military equipment?

Simon Birmingham: We have not, we’ve engaged cooperatively with Ukraine over a period of time now, including providing assistance in areas of cyber security and engagement. They’re noting that the first Russian attacks on Ukraine were using that modern warfare technique of cyber-attacks. And of course, we’ve reminded Australian businesses and entities of the need for preparedness there. Given the risk of Russia retaliating elsewhere around the world with cyber-attacks. But in terms of that, cooperation of practical assistance and support will coordinate that through NATO, given they’ve got the distribution channels to support Ukraine on the ground and responding there, as the PM indicated that other equipment that can help protect them, their soldiers and of course, their now civilian soldiers as many Ukrainians take up arms in defence of their nation.

Jim Wilson: The Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, told me yesterday on the program that kicking the Russian ambassador out of Canberra is being considered has there been further discussions about that today.

Simon Birmingham: We’re constantly reviewing the status around diplomatic presence and now, even during World War Two, nations kept diplomatic channels open to some extent. And so, there’s a consciousness of those historical precedents. But there are also plenty of occasions where ambassadors have been asked to leave for a period of time and that embassy staff have been reduced. And so these matters are under constant review. But what you can see from the actions Australia has taken to date is we’re doing them in concert with the US and the Americans more generally with the UK and Europe more generally, because it’s about that combined the effort of isolation. And that’s where we also encourage other countries to come to the party and most significantly, China to cease making excuses for Russia’s war on Ukraine and instead to actually take actions that could show respect for territorial borders, the sovereignty of other nations and could save the lives of many thousands of people.

Jim Wilson: We’re speaking to Acting Foreign Minister and Finance Minister Simon Birmingham. I’ve got to ask you, this Minister, there’s a lot of concern over China and the rhetoric that they’re using around Russia. I mean, they’ve eased trade restrictions on Russia, which the Prime Minister has strongly condemned. Has there been any discussion about sanctioning China or altering our trade with them?

Simon Birmingham: Not at this stage, as we know, China is the one who indeed targeted Australia with a range of sanctions and those have been despicable acts. And what we can see here is that China has over the last couple of years and then in the last couple of days, chosen to attack wine sales from Australia whilst facilitating wheat sales from Russia. And that just speaks to all of the wrong priorities in terms of the way in which nations engage with one another. Australia seeks nothing but a peaceful engagement with all in our region, including China. It’s why we pursued trade agreements and discussions with China and facilitated great growth in terms of relations between the Chinese and the Australian people. And on all these calls, it’s important to underline the fact that Australia’s beef is not with the Russian people or not with the Chinese people. It’s with Putin and the Russian government. And it’s indeed in the case of China, with the way under President Xi, they have targeted Australia, targeted other nations and undermined the peace and security of our region through their increased militarisation in the South China Sea or their destruction of rights in Hong Kong.

Jim Wilson: But the government rightfully has rejected China’s response to the invasion. There are suggestions that this invasion could increase China’s likelihood of invading Taiwan. How concerned are you about that?

Simon Birmingham : Well, we can see that China appears to be making apologies for Russia, and that is a very bad signal in regards to the way China views these issues that they. Rather than pursuing a peaceful approach and defending the rights of others in terms of their self-determination are making excuses and indeed economic action. This week, trade potentially facilitating Russia’s resistance to the global efforts to try to get them to change their ways. And so that only heightens the concern about China’s approach. And I’m sure many nations across our region would wish to see a stronger response from China, a principled response from China that signalled that China was willing to play a sensible role in global leadership rather than threatening one.

Jim Wilson: Obviously, this all has ramifications on the supply chain. What’s unfolding in Eastern Europe will affect us here in Australia, commodities like oil, wheat, corn and metals are all going to be impacted. The cost of living pressures are already high and will now increase even further, minister. What can you do about it to protect Australians hip pockets?

Simon Birmingham: So, Jim, you’re right. The cost of living pressures are real, and the Australian government knows that. Now there’s a global expectation that the impacts on oil prices may be more temporary rather than permanent. But we can’t be certain in regard to those things. We also can’t control global oil prices in Australia. The deals we’ve done with our gas companies mean that we are paying significantly more for gas across Australia, both industry and households than much of the rest of the world. Our petrol prices do remain in about the bottom quarter amongst OECD nations, but it’s hurting Australian families. I know that what we’ve pursued is where we can at the government influence these things by putting more money back in the hip pockets of households and families through tax cuts that are providing around $1.5 billion extra in disposable income for households each and every month than would otherwise be the case. And we know that that, together with the very low interest rate environment at present, provides a bit of buffer and support for what are difficult pressures when it comes to building the car.

Jim Wilson: What’s your advice, though, to people listening who are very, very concerned about being unable to afford the essentials? Because that’s going to be a reality. You look at petrol prices already, it’s expected to go above two bucks a litre diesel going through the roof that affects the supply chain and freight costs. It’s tough.

Simon Birmingham: It is tough, but it’s important also that in Australia, we don’t overreact and scare ourselves into problems that aren’t yet here and that hopefully through good management, we can avoid. Inflation in Australia is running at around half that of us or many other countries. So we’ve managed to keep a check on some of those things that have spiralled a bit more out of control elsewhere around the world. And that’s where sound economic management is important right now in Australia. We’ve got a strong economy where we’ve got unemployment at the lowest level in 13 years, youth unemployment at the lowest level in 14 years. Women’s workforce participation at the highest level ever. And these are creating opportunities for Australians. And we’ve got to maintain a focus on those fundamentals. And of course, we will be looking, though, through our sovereign capability strategy and manufacturing strategies in the areas where we need to bolster ability in Australia to supply ourselves. And that’s again showing the prescient nature of some of the things that Prime Minister Morrison and our government put in place over the last couple of years to reinvest in those areas that, in a more uncertain world, will now look more important than ever.

Jim Wilson: Well, it’s terrible what’s happening in Ukraine and of course, for the Australian Ukrainian community, and our thoughts are with them this afternoon and their loved ones back in their native land. And we appreciate your time this afternoon, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Jim. And indeed all our best to those of the Ukrainian heritage and with concerns there and of course, to the many good people of Russian heritage who are rightly appalled at what they’re seeing too.