Topics: Labor government international relations; Jobs summit; Labor can bring forward child care subsidy increases;


11:15AM AEST



Tom Connell:  On foreign affairs, it’s so far been pretty sure-footed effort, including from Penny Wong. So what are the thoughts from the shadow foreign affairs minister Simon Birmingham? He joins me now from our Adelaide studio. Thanks very much for your time. So, Labor’s certainly been working earnestly on the world stage, plenty of trips trying to shore up relationships as well in the Pacific. I guess the first question is would you have done anything differently over the first 100 days compared to what Labor has done?


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Tom. It’s great to be with you. Well, certainly the government has done what any new government should do, and that is to get out there and to take advantage of the fact that other countries, other governments are interested in meeting a new government of a G20 nation such as Australia. And it’s the right and proper thing for a new government to get out there and to seize those opportunities, particularly from fora, such as the Pacific Islands Forum or the NATO’s summit that Australia was invited to, or of course the leaders meeting of the Quad. That had been one of the signature achievements of our government to work with Japan and others to elevate that Quad relationship to a leaders level summit. And so all of those are things that the government was right to do and that any government should have done and and should do in the future in terms of ensuring they build those relations state clearly the areas of our alliances and friendships and seek to move in different issues. And so I acknowledge that the government has done that and it’s the right thing and it is, as I say, what any government should do.


Tom Connell: The under new management sign, if you like. It’s been a pretty alluring one, you’d have to say, particularly in the Pacific. Does it feel as though more attention and from higher up visits from the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister have made a difference there?


Simon Birmingham: Tom, only time will tell. I don’t accept the theory that there has been an increase in attention there. Let’s remember that after the 2019 election, the very first international visit the then prime minister made was into the Pacific. And so that was then disrupted in terms of the flow of visits as a result of COVID-19, and particularly the very tight quarantine arrangements that occurred across Pacific Island nations. But I think it’s right. The government pays significant attention to the Pacific. The previous government did with the Pacific step up strategy that saw us open around half a dozen new embassies and high commissions across the Pacific position. Australia as the only country to have that diplomatic mission in every single one of the Pacific Island Forum nations. That was a significant investment and step up coupled with additional infrastructure support and the like. The Government’s also right to make sure it provides attention to the ASEAN nations. And I would urge them to continue to do that and to invest time and effort in those South East Asian nations. But I also think it’s fair to observe that the Labor Party in opposition did use to suggest and make it seem as if it was simple to somehow restabilise a relationship with China or simple to manage issues in relations to countries such as the Solomon Islands. And what we’ve seen since day one is that pretence of simplicity pre-election is not the reality post election, difficulties have only heightened further-


Tom Connell: But the other thing we’ve seen is even more than- just on that you mentioned heightening further, we’ve seen even more Chinese aggression since. Do you think we’re at any point where Australia needs to put on the table the radical option of recognition of Taiwan as an independent country?


Simon Birmingham: Well Tom, I don’t see right now a need for a change in relation to the one China policy that Australia has and it is distinct from the one-China principle that China has. Australia’s one-China policy has enabled continued significant engagement with Taiwan through the years and they are a significant economic partner and important an important democracy within our region. And what we wish to see is for a peaceful resolution of difficulties or differences between China and Taiwan, and that’s crucial for the long term. But that peaceful resolution should be one that takes into account the views of the peoples involved, and particularly in this case, the views of the Taiwanese people’s involved.


Tom Connell: Some within time. One government won’t want greater engagement. We’ll see perhaps what that brings and decisions made by Labor. I want to turn to the jobs summit, though. Interesting to see what’s happening on the sidelines ahead of this. The ACTU and the small business group COSBOA with an agreement of sorts sort of struck. The BCA and the unions as well. Uber and supermarkets. There does seem to be some real progress. Is that your reading of things?


Simon Birmingham: We’ll have to see in terms of the detail that actually comes out. A number of these are principal level agreements and developments. And of course, we always wish to see businesses and unions, employers and employees working effectively together, and that should always be encouraged across the board. But the real test of this job summit is whether at the end, the local butcher or the local tech start up or any other small or medium sized business and engine of job growth across Australia is better placed to be able to employ more Australians to increase their wages. They’re the tests that need to be met and we’ll only know whether they’re going to effectively be met when we see the detailed outcomes. Certainly not going to be a good thing if the real detail that comes out of it is simply adhering to the ACTU wish list rather than things that are going to make life palatable-


Tom Connell: Well, so far these-


Simon Birmingham: -to employ people.


Tom Connell: Yeah, so far these principle agreements are not just one sided. There’s the sledging at the BCA in the room, COSBOA as well, Uber, supermarkets. But just on the sort of outcome is what we need here, some form of change and more flexibility to the so called BOOT, the better off overall test. If that does come, that would be a pretty concrete and positive outcome, would it not?


Simon Birmingham: Well, if it can provide for flexibility in a way that makes it easier for businesses to strike enterprise agreements and to get them registered and recognised faster and quicker, then that would be a good thing. But if it doesn’t occur in a way that recognises the differences of businesses and this is indeed where the risk of some of what the trade unions movements shopping list appears to be that request and for enterprise agreements to not really be enterprise agreements, but to sit across an entire industry, notwithstanding the differences that exist in different industries, in different businesses and enterprises. So that’s where I say the detail matters. The principle of a simplified, better off overall test is a decent principle, but the detail is really where the rubber hits the road.


Tom Connell: Okay. And fair enough. But if that detail is real and positive change, businesses are happy with it that you can get flexibility. That would make this more than a talkfest, wouldn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, that detail emerges and actually has consensus that the government then brings forward as proposals for legislative reform. Then all well and good. They’re the government. That’s what they should be doing.


Tom Connell: Okay. All right. Fair enough. We’ll wait to see that outcome because the detail is fair enough. There’s a lot of I’m sort of reading things and trying to figure out what they mean myself. So I don’t blame you for wanting that. Child care. Labor, bringing forward changes, making this more affordable for parents. They’re being pushed to do this by January. They say they can’t do it. The systems sort of two can’t quite handle the changes. It’s actually the same reason the Coalition was talking about for not bringing things forward. So is that fair enough from Labor? Do we need to change this system, maybe get some better systems going?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s not actually fair enough, Tom. Because we did end up bringing forward the start date for our childcare reforms earlier than had been announced in the 2021 Budget. And so that’s just it. Labor can bring it forward if they wish because there’s a proven model for doing so. We did it with reforms that started earlier this year, even though they were only meant to have started in July and they were more complex reforms because they sought to create a whole new category of child care support. Support for families with multiple children attending child care. All Labor’s reforms seek to do is increase the rate of subsidy. That’s a relatively straightforward reform. If they had the will to do it by the end of this year, they absolutely should be able to implement it. I also hear them suggest that there’s the cost or the expense element of this, which is the complete antithesis of the argument Labor were making during the election campaign, when they kept telling Australians that these reforms would pay for themselves. They were the Labor Party arguments. Now they say they cost too much to do sooner and administratively they can’t do it when there’s a proven model where administratively it can be done sooner and their own words suggest they should be able to do it without cost.


Tom Connell: The other reason given recently was a lack of workforce, but we have been trying to get the minister on. We will attempt to do so again. We’ve got to leave it there. Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Tom. My pleasure.