Topic(s): Ukraine; QLD floods

Andrew Clennell: Let’s bring in Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, we’re seeing some resistance from the Ukraine?

Simon Birmingham: Andrew, thanks for the opportunity, as you have heard from interviews in your lead up, you can see strong resistance occurring from Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian forces. And their resistance is indeed a resistance to be admired, to be one in which we can see their courage and their bravery and their determination to stand up for their independence, their sovereignty and the respect that their nation has as a free democratic nation, that has advanced principles that ought to be respected by all other nations.

And so President Putin and Russia’s war on Ukraine is something which we continue to condemn. We continue to liaise as closely as we can with our partners across Europe, the US, particularly with NATO, to provide the practical support that we can from afar to Ukraine during these troubled times.

Andrew Clennell: Did the world let its guard down when it came to Vladimir Putin?

Simon Birmingham: Andrew, we have certainly been engaging with our partners for some period of time in preparation for this possibility, especially as we saw the troops amassing there. What is driving Vladimir Putin is a matter for him and for commentators. But we can see that there is obviously an attempt to increase power to do so in the most violent and horrific of ways. And if you look at the broader global environment that has changed over the last couple of years, we can see that the increased assertiveness of China in terms of its actions in places like Hong Kong or the South China Sea. We can see the rise again in Afghanistan of a totalitarian Islamic regime.

We’ve now seen war again in Europe as Russia exerts its might. This is a great concern in terms of the far more unstable environment that the world faces, and a very clear reminder of the importance of investing in the security and your defences, and in making sure that as nations, we stand together with those who share values and support of the international rules based order, values in support of freedom and democracy, and that’s certainly what our government has been doing and we’ll continue to do.

Andrew Clennell: Would he, if he does manage to install a puppet government in Ukraine over the next week or several. Would he stop at Ukraine? Are there genuine fears he could try to go even further? Vladimir Putin?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t know that me making speculation on those fronts is especially helpful. What is clear is that NATO has responded by shifting troops and forces to countries that border the NATO’s eastern boundary, to make sure that they are prepared for any and all eventualities in that regard. Now, the fact that they have done so shows that they wish to, at the very least, send a clear signal, as they’ve stated publicly too, that they will respond in a unified way with the strongest possible response were there be an attack on any NATO country.

Andrew Clennell: Are Australian sanctions now in place on Vladimir Putin himself and the Foreign Minister Lavrov?

Simon Birmingham: Those sanctions are being applied and the final bits of paperwork around those are being settled.

Just, as we have applied already in our sanctions against hundreds of members of the Duma, against assistant defence ministers, against a range of different Russian oligarchs, against companies, against financial and banking institutions.

We have made sure that we’ve moved very much in lockstep with Europe, with the US, with the UK, in ensuring that we try to isolate Russia as effectively as possible.

Andrew Clennell: Mr Birmingham, would you like to see action on the SWIFT banking system, should Europe be refusing to buy Russian gas and oil? I think the US and Britain have been frustrated that Europe hasn’t done more. Would you like to see them do more or agree to more in terms of sanctions?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve been very clear that we want to say sanctions as tough as possible. Prime Minister Morrison has made the public calls for the pulling out of sporting events or action in terms of the SWIFT transaction system. He has been at the forefront of those calls publicly, as Australia is privately encouraging other countries to take the strongest possible action and indicating Australia’s willingness to be part of that.

And that’s why we have, though from some distance from the conflict and from Russia, nonetheless moved in absolute lockstep with other nations as quickly as we can, sometimes ahead of them on certain issues to implement these types of sanctions.

Andrew Clennell: At what point? Sorry, at what point does Australia look to resettle some fleeing Ukrainians? And would that be more likely in terms of refugee visas or safe haven visas?

Simon Birmingham: So we’re having discussions with UN agencies about the humanitarian response and again working closely with Europe. You can see in places such as the Polish border the significant number of crosses at the border there.

And as people seek to make refugee claims, then of course, will work as part of that international response to assist and no doubt to resettle individuals. Right now, we have been giving priority processing to any visa applications coming from Ukraine, support for those individuals to be able to get into Australia as quickly as possible. Just like, we’ve been providing for quite a number of weeks now consular assistance for Australians in the Ukraine, helping them to leave where they’ve been wanting to do so.

Andrew Clennell: And what do you make of the reaction of China and India to this, some including our PM, suggesting China’s conduct has been unacceptable. We know India is a QUAD partner, and yet they abstained from that vote yesterday. Others are saying that to have China abstaining on that vote is actually a win. What’s your read of it?

Simon Birmingham: Obviously, that vote at the UN Security Council was vetoed by Russia, and so the motion itself faced that veto from Russia. The abstention decision by other countries are obviously their call. We would have wished to see all of them support the motion. We, of course, would wish them all to be taking far stronger language and action in terms of some of those abstainers. But we’ve seen from India that they have been unequivocal in calling for a cessation of violence, and they’ve made that call direct, that Prime Minister Modi has had discussions directly with the Ukrainian president.

Now in the case of China, what we’ve seen is excuses made and justifications acknowledged and indeed financial or economic support even enabled. And those things are completely unacceptable. The excuses made or justifications acknowledged in terms of suggesting somehow that there were some legitimate territorial claims or that there were legitimate military concerns that Russia could have against Ukraine are completely unacceptable.

Andrew Clennell: Just briefly, Mr Birmingham, you look at all this and you look at how exposed Australia is. Say, with China and the region, you see the potential for our self-reliance within an alliance arrangement we’ve had for decades fall over. Is Australia exposed because we don’t have our own nuclear deterrent?

Simon Birmingham: No, Andrew. We have very strong and powerful alliances. And of course, what we have done as a Government is to restore defence expenditure. I spoke before about how the world has changed so significantly in the space of just a few years in terms of changes in Europe, changes in relation to China in our region, changes in relation to Afghanistan and Islamic extremism threats, all of these different things.

It was back in 2013 that our Government made a commitment to restore defence expenditure from what had been driven down to its lowest level since 1938 by the Labor government, and restore that to at least two per cent of GDP.

Andrew Clennell: And just on that, will we see extra defence spending then in the budget? Will there be an increase?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, there will be, because we have been putting in place increases in defence expenditure each and every year that we’ve been in office. We’ve projected out increases in defence expenditure too. We did that to make sure that Australia could not just have the best abilities as a relatively small nation in population terms to defend ourselves, but also could have a credible position with our allies and partners. And that is the fundamental thing that our increased defence expenditure..

Andrew Clennell: Sure, and Mr Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: No, this is a very important point.

Andrew Clennell: Okay, we’re nearly out of time though.

Simon Birmingham: AUKUS would not have been possible, had our government not increased the defence expenditure to what it is today. We would not have been a credible enough partner to enter into those deeper military ties with the US and UK without that increase in defence expenditure.

Andrew Clennell: Sure. And just quickly, just one sentence, please, if you can, a reaction to the Queensland flood situation?

Simon Birmingham: Terribly difficult times in Queensland. The Prime Minister and Minister McKenzie, as Minister for Emergency Management, have activated all the different levers to provide assistance to communities there.

And we will be standing, of course, with Queenslanders and working as closely as we can with the Queensland Government and local governments to provide whatever they need to get through those tragic flooding situations.

Andrew Clennell: Mr Birmingham, thanks so much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.