Topics:  Cheng Lei media incident; Chinese Premier visit to Australia; China-Australia relationship; Nuclear power policy;

02:35PM AEST
17 June 2024


Tom Connell:  So that was the Prime Minister live, joining me here in the studio and waiting patiently, the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. What do you make of that? Didn’t know what had happened. I guess he’d been busy. Do you think his media team might have alerted him?


Simon Birmingham: I would have thought, Tom, it would be surprising if the PM’s advisers didn’t say. By the way, Prime Minister, you might get asked a question about this. I suspect he should have been prepared and even if he didn’t quite see it taking place, should have known fully that it was happening. But I guess the issue itself is something that, frankly, it’s counterproductive. It’s a reminder we have very different systems, very different values. And clearly the way in which our freedoms and free media and free press operate is a stark contrast to elsewhere. But it was counterproductive of Chinese officials to engage that way. It’s not what should happen here in the nation’s parliament or anywhere else. Cheng Lei has shown herself to be an incredible woman, frankly an incredible woman in the understanding and the way she conducts herself as well, but also somebody who should be treated with respect.


Tom Connell: I can understand why a Prime Minister doesn’t want to blow up the relationship. Um, you know, on a whim, I should point out, an Australian official was sort of trying to say, hey, do you want to not stand there and you’re not going to tackle them out of the way? So, I get that, too. But there’s something about it happening in our Parliament that just feels as though it should be noted, at least perhaps, by our Prime Minister, rather than trotting out not aware of the incident.


Simon Birmingham: But it’s unacceptable. Conduct was counterproductive for what China should hope to receive from the visit, just as we would all wish for it to be as positive a visit as it can be. There are serious, long-term issues that we all need to be up front about. There are direct issues in the bilateral relationship that need to be confronted and addressed. But none of that is helped when you end up with something like this occurring that sends all of the wrong signals.


Tom Connell: The relationship has clearly stabilised somewhat under Labor and tariffs being removed. So that’s a that’s a positive obviously for our economy. Has Labor ceded anything they shouldn’t have in – if you say they achieve that maybe you say it got achieved anyway. But have ceded anything, they shouldn’t have?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Tom. I think overall we’ve seen a change in terms of Beijing’s approach around the world. There is not so much of the aggressive so-called wolf warrior diplomacy as there was a number of years ago. So that has changed and that has gone in parallel, if you like, with the changes to an approach to Australia. Importantly, Australia should celebrate the fact that we showed great economic resilience and strength as a country that when economic coercion was attempted upon us, we did not yield and there have not been significant changes in policy or direction or substance and yet their coercion has been removed, overwhelmingly removed date. And we want to see the rest of that removed, too. We have concerns that there are occasions such as the HMAS Toowoomba incident, where the Prime Minister, rather than being upfront and forthright in his engagement with President Xi, appeared to be overly reserved in the way in which he publicly responded to that. I think we’ve got to be clear and predictable on all of these issues.


Tom Connell: On that issue, because the Prime Minister said he raised communication, military to military communication, he says this is a practical solution. That implies this was just a miscommunication rather than a deliberate act. Is that a credible viewpoint?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Tom, that doesn’t seem to fit with the reports from Australian defence personnel of the incidents. We’re not talking about one here. Of course, there was the chaffing incident back closer to the start of this term of the Parliament. There was the HMAS Toowoomba incident, the recent helicopter incident. It is a pattern of behaviour. And in fact, even whilst these meetings have been taking place in the Australian Parliament today, there are reports in relation to conduct of a Chinese vessel against the Philippines in Southeast Asia. We have seen many, many of these types of incidents, far too many. They are dangerous. They are risky. They create the potential for escalation. Now, having the possibility for more open lines of communication between militaries is a good thing to try to avoid escalation. It is something that President Biden negotiated with President Xi in their dialogue over the last couple of years. If we can establish any type of remotely similar back channels, that will be welcome. But China needs to hear and understand the message too that dangerous conduct in the first place should not be occurring.


Tom Connell: Okay. And just finally, on another topic, we heard from Bridget Archer. She said the call, what have you describe it as from Peter Dutton about not having a 2030 emissions reduction target. She said look, it didn’t go through party room at all. It took a lot of us by surprise. Will the party’s policy on nuclear power go through the party room?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve been going through a very exhaustive process in relation to nuclear power. There have been numerous briefings and opportunities for members to be engaged in terms of discussion and understanding of the options there. And that policy will continue to be worked upon and released at the right time ahead of the next election.


Tom Connell: Backbenchers are able to have a sort of say and contribute, but it gets sorted at the Shadow Cabinet level. Is that essentially how that works?


Simon Birmingham: Well, there are standard processes in terms of both costings and details and the final structure of policy as well as arrangements around the announcement. But the substance here will most importantly be one about ensuring that we have the most credible pathway using the best technologies available to get to net zero by 2050, and to do so in ways that ensures Australia’s industrial underpinnings and electricity markets can operate with reliability and affordability for users.


Tom Connell: Got to leave it there. Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Tom.