Patricia Karvelas: The Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader have gone head-to-head in the first leaders debate of the election campaign. And while the audience of 100 undecided voters gave it to Anthony Albanese, a quarter of the voters couldn’t decide who the winner was. Simon Birmingham is the Finance Minister and our guest. Welcome to the program.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Patricia. Good to be with you.


Patricia Karvelas: The prime minister accused Labor of taking China’s side over the Solomon Islands security pact. Labor says it would have done more to stop the pact. How is that taking China’s side, though? They say that more should have been done to stop China.


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, it’s really a track record question that as China were piling on different trade sanctions and tariffs against Australia. Labor appeared to be suggesting that we should compromise with them. That at the National Press Club, Anthony Albanese suggested that in terms of China’s list of demands, we should perhaps deal with some of them. You know, these were sort of the hints and the clues that were given in the various ways in which statements have been made over time. Our position is one of showing strength and standing up for every Australian industry and every Australian value in relation to dealing with China. Now we’re not going to, with other sovereign countries, be able to dictate the policy and the approaches that they take. We’ve engaged comprehensively with the Solomon Islands, as we do with all of our Pacific partners. We’ve grown development assistance into the Pacific from 1.1 billion to about $1.8 billion-


Patricia Karvelas: Politely want to get in to just pick you up on this word that you used. It’s a track record comment, you say. So on this issue, on this deal, Labor isn’t taking China’s side, is it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ll let Labor speak for-


Patricia Karvelas: No, no. But the Prime Minister made a claim. It’s not taking China’s side, is it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, as I say, it goes to the track record.


Patricia Karvelas: You can talk about track records, but I’m asking you about this decision.


Simon Birmingham: On this decision, the Labor Party can express their own views. They seem to have a view that some sort of bully boy diplomacy would have yielded a different outcome with the Solomon Islands. Well, that’s certainly not the case. These matters always have to be handled sensitively, and they have to be handled in ways where you respect the sovereignty of other partners. We welcome the fact that Prime Minister Sogavare has continued to express his view that Australia is the security partner of choice for the Solomon Islands and we saw that in the recent support that was given. We welcome the public commitments he’s given that there will be no military basing of foreign troops happening in the Solomon Islands. These are important commitments and they’re ones that will have to continue to work with all members of the Pacific family to ensure are upheld.


Patricia Karvelas: When was your government made aware of the deal? Because last night the Pacific Minister Zed Seselja said Australia found out about the pact when it was leaked online. But that goes against what other ministers and the Prime Minister have said.


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, there are various security briefings and intelligence understandings, as well as confidential discussions that take place. It wouldn’t be good for the long-term engagement with Solomon Islands or any other partners for us to talk about all of those aspects of our knowledge.


Patricia Karvelas: Okay. But he is your Minister, and he says he found out when it was leaked. Is that when you found out?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, I’m not going to go through all the different briefings-


Patricia Karvelas: Why did Seselja say he found out when it was leaked?


Simon Birmingham: I haven’t seen Zed’s specific comments, but my understanding is that we have been continuously engaging with the Solomon Islands on a range of different issues as we do with all our Pacific partners. It was the first country the Prime Minister visited after the 2019 election. It’s a country with which we’ve shown great and particular attention. Our development assistance is delivered in ethical ways with integrity to support all of our Pacific family. And we’ve pivoted a lot of that development assistance back into the Pacific during our time in government, recognising the need to provide that support. We of course have also scaled up our investment in defences in response to the changed global circumstances we face. And this decision and this agreement is a reminder of why it’s so important that we rebuild the cuts to defence that Labor had and that we’ve restored-


Patricia Karvelas: But Minister, it is important-


Simon Birmingham: -as a credible partner for AUKUS.


Patricia Karvelas: Minister, it is important that we get to the to the crunch of this, which is when the Government found out, because it’s a key element of the story. The Prime Minister said he wasn’t surprised when questioned on the pact when it was leaked. Zed Seselja says that he found out that the Government became aware of it. And I’m looking at the transcript of his words when, when it was a leak that was revealed. So when was it? Was it the leak or was the government aware?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, as I said, I’m not going to go into either the sensitivities of intelligence briefings or confidential discussions that we have government to government with other partners. It’s simply a case that that would be detrimental to our long term interests in engaging with other countries. For us to do that. What is crucial is that we continue to pursue the many discussions that we have with all of our Pacific partners. They’re not going to always do as Australia would wish them to do, and we shouldn’t expect that. If we expected that, that would mean that we didn’t respect their sovereignty. We do respect their sovereignty. We urge them, as we do all other partners, to use that sovereignty in ways that don’t jeopardise it or undermine it to ensure that that they don’t enter into debt traps or other agreements with foreign powers that could jeopardise their position in any way. And we welcome the fact that Prime Minister Sogavare has been very clear in relation to the security partners of choice with the Solomons and in relation to the fact that they will not be seeing foreign bases established in the Solomon Islands.


Patricia Karvelas: If you’re just tuning in, this is Radio National Breakfast. I’m Patricia Karvelas and my guest is the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, Julie Bishop believes Foreign Minister Marise Payne should be on the next flight to the Solomon Islands following their deeply disturbing security deal with China. Will you send, will the Prime Minister send Marise Payne on the next plane?


Simon Birmingham: I’m sure that that when our election is over, that engagement with our Pacific partners will continue to be the type of high priority it was that saw the Prime Minister visit the Solomon Islands as his first country-


Patricia Karvelas: But you did send Zed Seselja during the election. You just said when the election is over why does it have to be over if you could have sent Zed Seselja during it?


Simon Birmingham: And Patricia I don’t think suggestions that simply Australia ganging up and shouting at a sovereign international partner are in any way going to yield the type of outcomes that people may prefer to see. These issues have to be handled in ways that are sensitive, that are respectful of the sovereignty and the positions of other countries. As I said before, we won’t always get every single outcome that we might prefer. But the way in which we go about engaging by our ministers, by our prime minister, but also by our security officials, noting that we had those security officials visit the Solomon Islands not that long ago by our senior diplomats who are regularly travelling through Pacific Island countries as well. They’re all important things. Ultimately, though, if we say we respect the sovereignty of other nations, we also have to act in ways that respect the sovereignty of other nations, including where we might disagree with the decision that they’ve made.


Patricia Karvelas: Just a couple of other issues. Last night we heard the prime minister said he was blessed to have children who weren’t disabled after a question from a woman with an autistic son. The word has been incredibly offensive to some people. Will he apologise for using it?


Simon Birmingham: I think the Prime Minister there was talking about, of course, the challenges that families who have children with disability face in terms of making sure that they address all of the complex issues and needs. And that is something that is why our government and the vast majority of Australians support having the NDIS in place. We’ve managed to grow it from-


Patricia Karvelas: Should he apologise for the use of that word because it was pretty hurtful and jarring?


Simon Birmingham: Hey, he went and spoke personally to I think it was Ethan’s mum immediately after the debate last night to talk through issues with her.


Patricia Karvelas: Do you know what he said? Did he say, I didn’t mean to use the word that I was blessed to have children that don’t have autism? Do you say that?


Simon Birmingham: I think they had I don’t know the details of their conversation, but I understand in particular, they had a practical discussion about some of her concerns with aspects of the way the NDIA had engaged with their family. And the Prime Minister took notes and details from her so that we are able to follow up. In her case, the NDIA now supports around 500,000 Australians. It is a large and complex system in the way that it operates. It’s got funding that has grown under us to now be greater in the total scale of NDIS funds than Medicare. And so-


Patricia Karvelas: But on this issue, and I’m raising it because it’s been overwhelmingly offensive to so many people living with disabilities or who have children with disabilities. And you say that he was referring to the challenges of living with a disability or having a child with a disability. Right, the challenges. But aren’t those challenges avoidable, Minister? If you have a system that isn’t so difficult to navigate and doesn’t restrict funding, you can actually you’ve got the power to get rid of the challenges, don’t you?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, I don’t think that all challenges can be eliminated for individuals living with disability or the families supporting those living with disability. We can absolutely. And we do seek to provide as much support as possible to minimise those challenges for individuals and to maximise the opportunities for people living with disability to fully participate in Australian society. And that’s what the NDIS seeks to do. Individual personalised plans-


Patricia Karvelas: But it is the role of the Government, isn’t it, to stop making it so hard for people?


Simon Birmingham: And Patricia, I think if you look at the scale of investment that is there now in the NDIS. And if you look at the huge numbers that have grown from a few thousand to around 500,000 individuals with those individual plans and supports, it’s making a transformative difference to the lives of many, and that’s a great thing. Can it continue to be improved and should it continue to be improved? Absolutely. But I don’t think we’ve seen something of this scale built in a relatively short period of time for the number of people it’s touching, the number of services provided, the number of providers delivering those services. It’s been a huge growth trajectory. And of course, there will be needs to continue to improve the way in which it is delivered so that it does minimise those challenges and maximise the opportunities for Australians living with disability.


Patricia Karvelas: There are more revelations about your candidate in Warringah this morning, more offensive commentary she’s made. Are you comfortable with her being your candidate when these offensive comments have been made by her and she hasn’t actually distanced herself from the spirit of these?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I can’t say that that I’ve looked closely at what’s come about overnight. Obviously have been focussed on the policies and the issues that came out of the debate last night.


Patricia Karvelas: And you’re comfortable with her being your candidate with those views?


Simon Birmingham: I haven’t looked closely at what’s come about overnight.


Patricia Karvelas: Are you comfortable with her being your candidate?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I haven’t looked closely at what’s been reported.


Patricia Karvelas: Are you comfortable with her being your candidate?


Simon Birmingham: As I said, I haven’t had the chance to look closely at the issues you’re asking me about. And so I’m not going to comment on them.


Patricia Karvelas: I can- I’ve asked several times, I’m going to take that that you’re not because you have not endorsed her in this interview. Just on another news story this morning, finance officials from Britain and the US have walked out of Wednesday’s G20 meeting as Russia’s representative spoke. Did Australia join the protest?


Simon Birmingham: Yes, and we’re obviously in caretaker mode at present, but we had officials who were participating virtually in that meeting. And those officials, as you can, virtually, they turned their cameras off at the right time.


Patricia Karvelas: And that was their form of protest.


Simon Birmingham: Well, yes. Obviously, you can’t get up and walk out of the meeting in that context. But they removed themselves from participation in the meeting during the Russian engagement. And Australia continues to work as closely as we can during this election period with all of our international partners to put as much pressure on Russia as possible to cease their actions and to deliver as much support as we can to Ukraine. And we continue to ensure that the military assistance we’ve promised gets to the Ukraine, that the support we’ve promised in terms of humanitarian and other assistance gets to Ukraine. The other practical assistance we’re delivering to Ukraine gets to them and to the other countries in the region who are assisting them.


Patricia Karvelas: Just finally, will the Australian Government make any representations to the UK Home Secretary around the extradition of Julian Assange to the US?


Simon Birmingham: No. Patricia, we trust the independence and integrity of the U.K. justice system. So our expectation, as always, is that it operate in the proper, transparent and independent way that it should. It, of course, has appeal processes built into it as well. This is the legal system upon which our own has been built and established and we have confidence in its process.


Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham, you always very generous with your time and thanks for coming on.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia. My pleasure.