Interview on Sky News with David Speers
Topics: Israel; Wentworth by-election; Trans-Pacific Partnership; Nauru resettlement


Simon Birmingham: …and that’s why this is a careful and deliberative process. Prime Minister’s made clear that he has indicated we’re going to look at this matter. And we will look at it thoroughly, carefully, deliberatively. That’s the type of process you would expect. We are open to change but not committing to the change. And we are committed to the two-State solution. And if we think that this type of change in policy could advance the two-State solution, noting that indeed you could have capitals of Israel and of a Palestinian State sitting side by side in East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem, they’re the options that will obviously be carefully considered.

David Speers: Well how do you think Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia – these markets for Australia – how do you think they’d react?          

Simon Birmingham: Look I don’t want to pre-judge markets like that. We have foreign policy differences with some of those countries already.

David Speers: Has there been conversations with them about this though?

Simon Birmingham: David, I would expect conversations to be ongoing and indeed Middle East issues would be frequent topics of conversation for Australia’s engagement with some of those nations. It is not unusual, though, for us to differ in terms of our votes at the United Nations, including on the one last night. That happens on a regular basis with some of those countries. But it doesn’t stop us from getting on and having other positive economic and investment relations, and that’s what we’ll keep working towards. 

David Speers: What about Indonesia? What is the situation there? Because we’ve heard a few mixed signals as to whether this could affect free trade talks with Indonesia. What have you been told?              

Simon Birmingham: Look, I have no reason to believe there’s any problems and in fact every reason to believe that everything is on track. The Indonesian Trade Minister has said that it’s on track and I’ve thanked him for his remarks. And indeed just walking in here I was shown comments from the Indonesian Commerce Minister, who says that the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is still being worked on and will not be affected. To quote precisely, it should not be affected, it should just go ahead – we disagree, as in on the Jerusalem issue, but it’s the right of a sovereign country to do that, he said. And that’s just it, Australia’s a sovereign country, Indonesia’s a sovereign country, we have perhaps differences in terms of our foreign policy perspective when it comes to Israel and Palestine, which of course are in another part of the world. But that shouldn’t affect the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Australia here in our part of the world and the way we get on with our business.

David Speers: What evidence is there though, that shifting the embassy would achieve a two-State solution?

Simon Birmingham: Well that’s what we’ll assess. That’s the point of having a thorough assessment and a process, as to whether this is going to get you closer. We certainly know that the actions –

David Speers: Why can’t you assess that quietly? Why announce this? Seen very much in the context of a pretty important by-election campaign a few days off. Why don’t you do this quietly, assess this, weight it up, instead of doing it in such a public way and using it to put some political pressure on Labor as well about not really backing Israel? 

Simon Birmingham: Well obviously the timing of the announcement was related to that UN vote that occurred overnight. But also the reality that if Prime Minister Morrison is going to have discussions with other world leaders about the options here and whether a change in approach could get us closer. As in the policies that have been set in stone for the last decades really, rather than even years, haven’t got us any closer. And so if a change of approach can get us there. Having those discussions. You know full well that once you start having those discussions at a wider level they leak out in any event so better to be upfront as Scott is and to make clear that you’re going to have those discussions. You’re going to undertake that analysis rather than deal when it leaks out.

David Speers: Ok. Was this agreed by Cabinet though?

Simon Birmingham: Indeed.

David Speers: The position Scott Morrison announced this week was agreed by Cabinet?         

Simon Birmingham: Yes.

David Speers: Ok. The Trans-Pacific Partnership. Legislation passed through the Parliament today. Do you thank the Labor Party at all for that?

Simon Birmingham: I do. When Labor made their announcement they’d support the legislation, I acknowledged – and I did in my speech in the Senate as well – that that’s constructive to have the two parties that, or the two sides of politics that fight to form government, working constructively on this issue as we have on trade policy for a long period of time. It’s disturbing when you see the extremes. The extreme left, the extreme right, being the ones voting together. I am concerned that Labor has, during this process, outlined some changes to their policies that I think will make it incredibly hard, if not nigh on impossible, for Labor to do trade negotiations in the future. And I think they are seriously undermining Australia’s position and their policy position is of great concern.

David Speers: Well both of those changes are, what, to have required labour market testing to make sure Aussies are offered jobs before foreign workers in Australia, and not to have this investor state dispute mechanism where foreign companies can sue the Australian Government. You’re saying if they did that we would jeopardise future trade deals?

Simon Birmingham: I think putting these conditions in stone the way the Labor announcement seeks to do, do jeopardise the negotiating right of Australia in terms of the position you take into those discussions. When it comes to investor state dispute settlement mechanisms, these are overwhelming operating in favour of Australian companies and businesses. They’ve never been used successfully against the Australian Government. Yet, Australian companies investing and operating, and expanding their operations in other nations have successfully used them. Why have they never been used successfully against Australia? Well because, the way our governments behave here tend not to legislate actions that undermine the sovereignty of investments in Australia. And because our judicial and legal processes are quite sound and most issues if there are some are resolved through the domestic legal processes of the country. That’s not always the case in other countries. So ISDS provisions on balance work far more in favour of Australian companies and businesses expanding their operations into other nations than they necessarily do in terms of against the Australian Government.    

David Speers: Final one. Some of your moderate colleagues in the Liberal Party want to get the kids off Nauru as quickly as possible – refugee kids. Do you agree?

Simon Birmingham: Well we all want to see the children off Nauru. Indeed we ultimately want to see everybody resettled from Nauru. That shouldn’t be done in a way that undermines the policies that have stopped boat arrivals and given us border security and most importantly ensured that there aren’t any new individuals facing assessment, detention, processes and the types of things that we have of course spent years now clearing people out of detention centres from arrivals that occurred under the Labor Party. We’re close to the end of that, and that’s great. We want to get to the end of that without seeing any new arrivals.  

David Speers: John Howard allowed hundreds to be resettled from Nauru and New Zealand, and Australia. Did that restart the boats?

Simon Birmingham: Well of course it’s hard to know in some ways, David, because Kevin Rudd came along and changed the policy settings and it definitely restarted the boats.

David Speers: Did John Howard restart the boats?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t think John Howard restarted the boats. I know that Kevin Rudd’s changes in policy settings definitely restarted the boats.

David Speers: So it wasn’t John Howard resettling hundreds in New Zealand and Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Now, we want to see a circumstance where the residual numbers of individuals are resettled. We keep working hard on that. There’s more than 400 who have been settled in the US to date. We keep pursuing opportunities through that agreement. And there of course are some who can choose to exercise the option that’s been given to them to be supported to return to their original home countries, including some who have not been found not to be refugees and ought to take up that option.

David Speers: Simon Birmingham, Trade Minister, thanks for joining us this afternoon. Appreciate it.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, David.