Topics: Border security; Christopher Pyne; Hakeem Al-Araibi; IA-CEPA; President Trump; Yang Hengjun.  


David Bevan:   Let’s begin with Christmas Island. The Prime Minister is visiting today. Simon Birmingham can you – just very briefly, you know we are always pressed for time – can you explain to our listeners why you say you need to reopen Christmas Island?

Simon Birmingham: In short, you will recall that the Labor Party, together with The Greens and some others including Rebekha Sharkie, decided to change Australia’s border protection laws and in doing so have set up a circumstance where it is possible that there are some individuals who we would rather not be allowed to come to mainland Australia, could have to be transferred. That is why we are looking at Christmas Island as a place in which we can abide by those laws the Labor Party put through, provide them with care and treatment if required, but also make sure that we put the safety of the Australian people first and foremost and the ongoing protection of our borders.

David Bevan:   Penny Wong, that’s a sensible idea?

Penny Wong:  This is an interesting stunt isn’t it? He is going to Christmas Island. There is not a single person that has been recommended for a medical transfer yet, so the Prime Minister of Australia is taking time out, not to talk about schools, education, the fact that wages aren’t growing, to go to an empty detention centre so he can engage in a political stunt.

As Simon knows, the legislation passed by the Parliament gave the minister full powers to reject a transfer on security and criminality grounds. So this is just Scott Morrison wanting a stunt. But more concerningly that you would do that as some sort of message to people smugglers that there is a risk that the trade can reopen is really irresponsible by Mr Morrison.

Ali Clarke: Cory Bernardi?

Cory Bernardi: I think the Government is absolutely right here. Labor and The Greens and some of the crossbench opened the doors to our border protection laws being dismantled and no matter what Senator Wong says it has sent a very clear message that if you kick up a stink long enough the activists will get behind you and bring you to Australia, much to our detriment.

David Bevan:   Simon Birmingham, Penny Wong’s point is that you have enough discretion to keep the bad people out of the country. You don’t need to go to this measure.

Simon Birmingham: Well there are legal questions over what Senator Wong says there, and of course these amendments that the Labor Party made at the last minute were rushed, were part of deals done with The Australian Greens. I mean, if this is how they are going to govern the country if they win the next election, heaven help all of us.

Penny Wong: Because you’re doing such a great job right now mate. You have cabinet ministers stampeding for the exit and you’re going to give us a lecture on how to govern really?

Simon Birmingham: I think the economy is going very well. The Budget is coming back to balance…

Penny Wong: Wages growth at record lows.

Simon Birmingham: Young Australians have got more opportunities than ever before. Female workforce participation is at the highest level ever which is something to celebrate in this week of International Women’s Day. So I think yes, there are a lot of good things to highlight.

David Bevan:   Simon Birmingham, you have just finished signing off a huge trade deal in Indonesia and yet you say – and we will give, almost certainly the future Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong an opportunity to respond to this – but why do you say future deals like that are at risk?

Simon Birmingham: Because the Labor Party has buckled to ill-considered demands of the trade union movement when it comes to what they will or won’t do in future trade agreements.

Australia’s trade negotiators need to be able to negotiate the best possible deal for our industries and to have the freedom to do what is necessary to get to that point whereas Labor has run a scare campaign around things that are known as investor dispute settlement mechanisms. Now these are things that have never been used successfully against Australia because we provide a very stable framework for investment, but are important for Australian investors operating overseas and they are important for our trading partners to be able to say we are going to be able to secure and attract investment as a result of these agreements.

Now it is a technical thing, but it will make it harder for us to strike those agreements in the future, and it is unnecessary. There is no good public policy reason for the position the Labor Party has taken and the idea they’re going to try to renegotiate existing agreements or settled agreements really is quite unprecedented in terms of the way in which Australia does business with the rest of the world.

Ali Clarke: Penny Wong, why would you try and go and fix something which has already been signed off on?

Penny Wong: There is a whole range of things which Simon has said which he knows are untrue, and he didn’t have a lot of heart in the criticism.

The first is let’s remember the investor state clauses were the basis on which Australia’s plain packaging legislation where litigated by big tobacco. Now they didn’t succeed, so Simon is correct in saying they haven’t been used successfully, but they have been used. So I think that is the issue that a number of people in the community, not just in the Labor Party, have concerns about.

In terms of trade agreements, we have been the party that has engaged in opening up our economy for the benefit of working people and jobs to try to gain a greater chance to export goods and services. That’s been Labor’s tradition over decades.

Simon knows we passed a whole range of trade agreements in Opposition including the China Free Trade Agreement and the Japan and Korea Free Trade Agreements. We did make criticisms of them. I think that they included the wave of labour market testing, that is, making sure the protections we have to ensure we prioritise local jobs including people coming in from overseas where there isn’t a space in the labour market. I think those were the wrong things to put in those agreements and we did try to remedy those things.

David Bevan:   And you weren’t the party that fooled around with trade by speculating about the Israeli capital?

Penny Wong: That certainly sent a message into the region and put this agreement at risk. But look, can we try to get above party politics? This is a positive development. Trade with Indonesia is underdone. Labor started these negotiations in government. It is very important that we expand our relationship with Indonesia. Unfortunately trade has gone backwards over the last year with Indonesia. We need to rebuild that and this agreement is a part of it.

As Simon himself is very fond of saying, Indonesia is projected to become the world’s fourth largest economy. As Labor Prime Ministers from Keating onwards and many others have said, this is a critical nation for our economic prosperity and for our national security. So it is a positive development.

David Bevan:   Penny Wong, Political Editor with Channel Nine, Chris Uhlmann has tweeted “Why is the liberty of Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi worth more than that of Australian blogger Yang Hengjun? He’s now been held in a Chinese black prison for 46 days. Australia’s “quiet diplomacy” has won him two consular visits, the last on Feb 26 and none from his lawyer.”

Penny Wong: I don’t think Chris is correct to say freedom is worth less. I think that both the Opposition and the Government have made public statements about Mr Yang’s detention and being held and we have called for him to be dealt with fairly and transparently.

David Bevan:   But it doesn’t compare with what was handed out to Mr Alaraibi though?

Penny Wong: My view about this, and this is the view I have taken in all consular cases, is that as the alternative government our job is to work responsibly with the Government of the day to try to secure the best outcome for Australian citizens and that is what we will do, rather than end up in a competition about who can tweet more.

This is a serious situation. He is an Australian citizen. All political parties in the country should be behind making sure he is treated fairly. That should be communicated, and I understand it is being communicated.

David Bevan:   But he hasn’t been treated in the same way as Mr Alaraibi. Is that a failure of the Australian public, a failure of the Australian media, or Australian politicians, or all of the above? Because, frankly we are really interested in footballers but we are not really interested in novelists?

Penny Wong: That’s probably a question for you and other commentators about why people might respond. I can give you my answer which is that you deal with each case as appropriately as you can in the way that you think will maximise the benefit to the Australian concerned.

I mean we, for example, in relation to Mr Alaraibi, we wrote to the Thai Ambassador here, but we didn’t make that letter public because we didn’t think that was appropriate at the time.

Ali Clarke: Cory Bernardi, what do you think?

Cory Bernardi: I can state categorically I think this is not a failure of the Australian public. They are deeply concerned about the influence of the Chinese on Australia, both our economy and our customs and our way of life.

I think the Government and the Opposition are, quite frankly, running scared. They know China is our largest market place and we are captive to their economy. If they pull the pin on their international students it will affect us and they are playing in, and toying with our politics, with our economy, with our social and cultural lives and that is why they have been able to invade half of the South China Sea with nary a whimper from the Government or the Opposition for that matter. We’ve got to address this. It’s the elephant in the room and the Australian public know it.

Ali Clarke: Let’s go to you now Simon Birmingham. Do you want to respond?

Simon Birmingham: Well I don’t agree with the Cory’s characterisation there. Yes, of course, China is our largest two-way trading partner and they are a very important partner to Australia. But we do take each of these consular cases seriously. We take standing up for Australia’s interests seriously. We take our national security seriously and have been criticised by others in Australia and overseas for some of the decisions we have made in relation to this.

David Bevan:   But can we just agree on this Simon Birmingham – there is a real difference between the treatment of Hakeem Alaraibi and this chap Yang Hengjun? There is a real difference in the way they have been treated?

Simon Birmingham: Not from the Government there is not David.

David Bevan:   So you have given all of the support that you have given to Hakeem Alaraibi, you have given to this other fellow who has been held in a prison for nearly 50 days in China?

Simon Birmingham: We are consistent in the way in which we handle consular cases. Each case, of course, is different, Not just the country but also the detail and the legality attached to the case and so on. I think the way in which you are drawing this out is to somehow suggest that because there was greater public interest in a different case that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a difference in the seriousness with which the Government handles it, or indeed the Opposition supports us in our handling of that. We make sure that in each and every case we step out as carefully as we can in the case of the individual.

I recall in relation to the case in Thailand we were criticised for not doing enough publicly by some. We did an awful lot behind the scenes in that case, and did so carefully and cautiously, and that’s exactly what we do in every single case.

Ali Clarke: We spoke to Simon Birmingham on Monday in the wake of the announcement of Christopher Pyne leaving federal politics. Cory Bernardi will you miss Mr Christopher Pyne?

Cory Bernardi: The short answer is not particularly. I am no longer part of the Liberal Party so we don’t cross swords in that. He’s a combination of Frank Spencer and Frank Underwood isn’t he? And that hasn’t worked well for politics I don’t think. But others will have a different view.

David Bevan:   Penny Wong will you miss him?

Penny Wong: (laughing) I’m just trying to deal with the image of Frank Spencer and Frank Underwood.

Ali Clarke: House of Cards for anyone playing at home

Penny Wong: It’s kind of scary that we are all old enough to know who Frank Spencer is. Half the audience probably won’t.

Cory Bernardi: He wouldn’t get to air today I don’t think.

Penny Wong: Look, Christopher is a very entertaining individual. The comment I made on Saturday – and obviously I am on the other side of politics – I said he is entertaining, he is ebullient and he is tenacious at times to the point of ruthlessness, but he has been a worthy opponent.

I think the bigger question about Christopher leaving is, that whatever people think about him, he is an extremely senior cabinet minister. He is their senior tactician, he is Leader of the House, and when you count – I think this is now the sixth cabinet or ex-cabinet minister to leave in a short time frame – it is a massive vote of no confidence in Scott Morrison and his Government.

David Bevan:   Simon Birmingham, we did canvas your views on Monday about Christopher Pyne.

Just with a little bit of time that we have got left, Penny Wong do you think the world is a better, worse, or pretty much the same place, since Donald Trump became president?

Penny Wong: The world is a more disrupted place over these last few years. I’ve spoken a lot about that. That is a function of a whole range of political events, economic events. It is a function of what is happening in terms of the destruction of the world, the post-World War II order, the changes in people’s views around trade.

David Bevan:   Donald Trump hasn’t helped?

Simon Birmingham: President Trump is an indication of the times. He ultimately, as I previously said, he expressed a whole range of views on different policies, some of which the Government has agreed with and some of which the Australian Government hasn’t agreed with.

But ultimately – I understand where you are going – let’s remember our relationship is with the nation. Our alliance and friendship is with the American nation, regardless of what people‘s views might be about particular policy positions.

David Bevan:   Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: No doubt analysts will, for years to come, pore over to what extent President Trump is a symptom or cause of disruption within the world. In the end there is much disruption, as Penny says. We do see some challenges to things that have become accepted as embedded parts of our global system and now they are tested and challenged. I think there’s a sense that electorates have evolved and I think we have to work with those changes.

But obviously, our focus, as a government, is on Australia’s best interests, our security interests and keeping the country as strong as we possibly can. And the alliance with US and the investment partnership with US are all important elements of that.

Can I also just say, very quickly in response to Penny’s previous answer, there are eight Labor MPs including former cabinet ministers and shadow ministers who are leaving as well.

Penny Wong: Good try mate, good try.

Simon Birmingham: Well it is a fact.

Penny Wong: That’s pretty funny. I think everybody can watch the TV and see cabinet minister after cabinet minister stampede for the exits. But that’s life. I know you’ve got to run the line.

Ali Clarke: Well we will leave that line there. Cory Bernardi you’ve been smirking all the way through that. I don’t know if you needed to add anything to it?

Cory Bernardi: Only because it’s unquestionable the world is in a better place because Donald Trump is President. The US economy is going gangbusters. Vladimir Putin hasn’t invaded any other country. ISIS on the cusp of being defeated and North Korea is engaged in dialogue to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula. And he’s calling out China’s bluff. I think the world is in a much better space because of Donald Trump.

Ali Clarke: On that note, Leader of the Australian Conservatives Cory Bernardi, thank you for coming in. Penny Wong, Labor Senator for South Australia, thank you.

Penny Wong: Good to be with you.

Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.