Topics: Foreign Minister NPC speech had more omissions than inclusions; Julian Assange; Voice to Parliament; Changes to commodity price assumptions;

03:35PM AEST
Monday, 17 April 2023


Andrew Clennell: Well, no real winners during a Taiwan conflict. You couldn’t have told me that before. It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Watching on to the speech was the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham, who joins me now from Adelaide. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for joining us. Penny Wong calling for lowering the heat around this issue. What did you make of that?


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Andrew. Look, there is broad bipartisanship over the ambition and desire to see a peaceful, stable, prosperous region. A region where we absolutely recognise the need for engagement with partners across the Pacific Island nations, across ASEAN nations and others more broadly. And of course, a region where international rules and norms underpin the sovereignty and the rights of different countries, especially smaller countries, mid-sized countries and we ensure we are not in a world where might is right, and especially not in one where regionally we face a prospect of the largest player in the region dominating those rules or overly shaping them. And so in that sense, there’s broad consensus, of course.

Now, there were other areas of Minister Wong’s remarks today where in some parts I think she undermines her own stance and credibility by being overly partisan in terms of historical perspectives. The remarks, the negative remarks about Robert Menzies or John Howard in a historical context, pretending they had no regional engagement or strategy when in the end Menzies was the one who showed great courage and foresight by leading Australia’s post-World War II engagement with Japan. Howard was the leader that oversaw the first visit to Australia by a President of China and the first visit separately to Australia by a President of China who also went on to address our national Parliament. So I think we ought to recognise the accomplishments of all in that space. But particularly perhaps most concerning was the fact that parts of the speech were notable for the omissions rather than the inclusions. Not a single reference to NATO, nor to the importance of partnerships with broader democratic nations such as those across Europe. And at a time where there’s this uncertainty hanging over whether or not the Prime Minister will visit the NATO Leaders’ Summit in July, I would have thought today was a classic chance for the Foreign Minister to clear up that uncertainty and it’s most disappointing and concerning that she missed that opportunity.


Andrew Clennell: Just on that, though, I mean, I guess the PM’s been attacked for being overseas too much. He’s going to a range of summits this year. Can’t win either way I suppose to some extent. Can you? Is it such a bad thing if Richard Marles attends?


Simon Birmingham: Well, this is the job of the Prime Minister to indeed engage with fellow world leaders on critical issues. And the NATO Leaders’ Summit is the one opportunity Australia has to engage with European partners and nations on security related issues. And what we can see through the consecutive invitations to attend with the so-called AP4 invited- Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Australia is that NATO is showing an interest in potentially embedding Australia and our region as part of their ongoing security dialogue. Now that is an invitation too good for us to overlook or for us to risk by not showing up. Prime Minister Albanese should be there to ensure we embed as a permanent ongoing feature of NATO dialogue and discussions about Indo-Pacific security. It should also be there, equipped with a full and comprehensive, further package of support for Ukraine. More than 12 months after that war began, we can now no longer show fatigue or cannot show any fatigue or weariness in the conflict. We need to make sure that we back in the initial high level of support. There’s been no additional humanitarian assistance since the Morrison government announced it. There have only been small and piecemeal additions to military assistance since the Morrison government’s announcements. We ought to be back making sure we are giving comprehensive support for the year ahead to help ensure Ukraine prevails in upholding those international rules and norms that are so important and were a feature of Penny Wong’s speech.


Andrew Clennell: Now, Mr. Birmingham, the other thing, another matter she was asked about was Julian Assange. If you were Foreign Minister right now, what would you be doing, if anything, in relation to his case?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I share Penny Wong’s views that it has gone on a long time. But of course, part of the reason it’s gone on such a long time is that Mr. Assange has whatever the allegations and there have been different ones at different times from different countries. He has used every available legal means to him and indeed some quite unique ones in terms of the period he spent in the Ecuadorian embassy trying to evade and slow down the processes. Now, those legal means are his right and it’s up to him to choose his legal strategies. But of course, the UK and the US are countries with their own strong sovereign legal systems. Their countries, particularly in the case of the UK, where we have inherited and built much of our legal system upon theirs. And I have nothing but respect for the processes of their legal systems. And whilst we should continue to give him all of the same consular assistance that we would to any other individual, we should also respect those legal processes.


Andrew Clennell: All right. Well, it would be remiss of me not to ask you about this interesting interview you had with Kieran Gilbert last week, the chief anchor here. I want to play the reaction to it from two of your coalition colleagues. Have a listen to this.


Bridget McKenzie : Those that want to campaign for yes will be going against both the Liberal and the National Party position and obviously as shadow cabinet ministers, that would be untenable.



Alex Antic: We’re voting no. The party’s position is to vote no. I think if that is to be Simon’s position, then I really do think this makes his position as Opposition Leader in the Senate and a frontbencher fairly untenable.



Andrew Clennell: What’s your reaction to that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I won’t be acting contrary to the decision that was taken.


Andrew Clennell: So are you going to vote yes or no?


Simon Birmingham: That’s it. I won’t be acting contrary to the position that was taken, as I’ve said publicly as well, Andrew. There’s a way to go in relation to the parliamentary process, and I do as someone who doesn’t want to see the country put through a referendum that is ultimately unsuccessful, hope that the Government listens to the offer made by Peter Dutton and rephrases the questions that are put so that we could actually have a serious question in relation to constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians that could provide a unifying moment for the nation. Or I hope that they equally listen to Julian Leeser’s thoughtful comments. As someone who has long advocated for a voice and taken the principled stance he has, that the government has got the wording wrong in relation to what they’re proposing.


Andrew Clennell: So, if the proposed-


Simon Birmingham: I want to see change in this and a changed approach before we get to the point of voting, but otherwise I won’t act contrary to the position we’ve taken, I understand the arguments for that. I respect the processes that we’ve gone through in that regard. And I have plenty of other things in terms of what we were just talking about as Shadow Foreign Minister to be focusing my time and energies on that are critical to the future security of our nation, to the future economic prosperity of our nation, including concerning answers today around the way in which the government seems to view the Trans-Pacific Partnership as an avenue for them to perhaps not be clear about the trade principles that Australia should be forming in relation to our position.


Andrew Clennell: Let me get this straight though, because, you know, there was a bit of ambiguity after last week. Let’s face it, if the proposal and the wording stays the same as it is now, you’re saying you’re voting no?


Simon Birmingham: Andrews as I’ve said I won’t be acting contrary to the party room decision and that includes the stance taken in relation to that question.


Andrew Clennell: So, you’d be voting no if it stays the same?


Simon Birmingham: Indeed, Andrew. The position the party room has taken is one that I respect.


Andrew Clennell: Do you believe that all members of shadow cabinet are bound by this? That that’s correct. That you’d have to vote no and campaign for no. As things stand at the moment, would you campaign for, no?


Simon Birmingham: So, there’s nothing in terms of the decision that says, you know, we’ve got to be out there addressing rallies or the like. There are many different issues facing this country and frankly, many of them more important than the referendum that will be put later this year. And so, a Shadow Foreign Minister, I’m not going to be distracted from the challenges we face in our region, the national security and other challenges we face by these matters. I’m going to keep focusing on those things germane to the job that I’m doing. Just as I would expect that many other colleagues will have a desire to focus on other issues that go quite likely to the cost of living pressures that Australians are facing, the inflationary pressures that they are under the need for us to ensure we have economic policies to get us through a time where the IMF is predicting recession in large parts of the world. There’s an awful lot of issues that need to be addressed and focused on, and I trust we’ll make sure we are delivering that focus and not just one about this referendum this year.


Andrew Clennell: Just a couple more on this, if I may. Are you happy with the shadow cabinet decision then?


Simon Birmingham: I put my positions through that process, and I’ve written about those. People can go and have a look at what I’ve what I’ve written in terms of the nuance I think that exists over this debate. Frankly, I am sad that the country is in the position as it in. This is not an issue that I’ve given speeches on or campaigned on, I had strong views on. But I do think it is a bad thing that the government has got us to a position through an expansionist approach to voice, where we could see a referendum fail or where at the very least it will be a closely divided outcome. It would have been far better for the country had this been built as a unifying moment and one where we could have constitutional recognition of first Australians and Indigenous Australians in a way that delivers national unity.


Andrew Clennell: Do you think Julian Leeser had to resign over this?


Simon Birmingham: Well, that was Julian’s call and his decision. We will see how Julian engages moving forward. But my understanding from his remarks is he wanted to preserve the opportunity to campaign for a yes vote. And if he wanted to campaign for a yes vote, then that clearly would have been contrary to the party room decision.


Andrew Clennell: All right. Let me ask you a question. As a former finance minister, Jim Chalmers, mentioned this morning that Treasury is recommending changing its commodity price assumptions. We know that they’re usually conservative coal and iron ore the price is usually higher. It helps the budget bottom line. Did your ears prick up at that when he said that this morning?


Simon Birmingham: Sure did. Because this sounds very much like what Jim Chalmers did when he was Wayne Swan’s chief of staff. Which was to create a rosier picture for revenue forecasts in the future rather than to adopt a conservative approach to revenue forecasts. The last budget that Josh Frydenberg and I handed down delivered the biggest bottom-line improvement to an Australian budget in 70 years. It was a huge leap forward. Part of it from commodity prices, part of it though also from stronger economic results, fewer people on welfare, therefore fewer payments going out and more tax receipts coming in. And these were all really critical results to ensuring that we were repairing the budget far faster than had been thought possible during the depths of COVID. Now, this Government, if they’re going to potentially take a more expansionist approach to where those revenues could come from, particularly commodity prices, risks coming in on the wrong side of that ledger in future, and that is a risk that should not be taken. We should be making sure that we maintain a conservative approach to revenue forecasting so that the international ratings agencies have nothing but confidence in the fact that when the Australian government outlines a budget, it will be met or bettered. And that has served us very, very well, that even during the depths of COVID, we kept our triple-A credit rating when most other nations didn’t. One I think of only nine countries in the world to do so. And we were able to keep that triple-A credit rating because we had maximum credibility due to the conservative nature of our budget forecasting.


Andrew Clennell: Just very briefly, Simon Birmingham, we’ve got to go, but do you who do you think should replace Julian Leeser in the position of Indigenous Affairs spokesperson? Should it be a Liberal or should Jacinta Price come into play?


Simon Birmingham: Well that we can keep quick Andrew because that really is a matter for Peter Dutton to resolve if need be, in consultation with our Coalition partner in the National Party.


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


Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.