Kieran Gilbert: Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham. Senator Birmingham, thank you for your time. Let me start with a broad question. With the Prime Minister on his way to those NATO’s talks, do you welcome this sort of broader focus from NATO inviting our PM the New Zealand leader along with the leaders of Japan and South Korea?
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Kieran. Australia’s had a very long engagement in history with NATO. We’ve always ensured we have strong representation in engagement through our Ambassador to NATO and with the type of work that different governments have pursued over time. But we face an era and a challenge right now that is very acute, we can all see that, with the horrors that have unfolded in the Ukraine as a result of the Russian invasion. And that certainly necessitates that the world to take very seriously the challenges posed by authoritarian regimes and for like-minded democratic countries, to work as closely together as possible in response to those sorts of challenges. And so, yes, it is very welcome for NATO itself to be looking to have that type of broader engagement and that type of relationship with countries like Australia, and especially such a gathering of nations from across our region, who as democracies share certain values, share a certain perspective and treasure the rights of our individuals and in our nations, and want to make sure that those rights are extended where possible to others. So we’re certainly very keen to see those sorts of discussions succeed and also keen to ensure that specifically on the challenges of our time and the new government takes to the NATO summit, the type of actions to build upon the extent of Australia’s support for Ukraine to date. We’ve been the leading non-NATO country in terms of providing military assistance, humanitarian assistance and diplomatic assistance. And Australia ought to continue to be at the forefront of providing that sort of support for Ukraine.
Kieran Gilbert: On that issue, though, that you touched on, if we could explore that in a bit more detail in terms of that sort of broader issue of dealing with aggressive nations like Russia in Europe, do you see a sort of flow on to our region, though? And does that reflect a view that global security is no longer regional it is global when we talk about these issues?
Simon Birmingham: I think certainly the impacts of these issues are global. Now, the way in which certain nations and regimes choose to engage with in challenging norms and laws and rules. Is not just isolated to their own region. We can see that different nations seek to challenge established laws and rules and norms through multilateral organisations and through pursuit of power and influence in those organisations, and through disruption and through those types of channels, as well as the extreme end, the type of regional conflict that we see through Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And so that is certainly why we need to take a very global perspective in terms of the alliances and partnerships that countries like Australia seek to foster and enhance. You saw during the previous government that we revived the Quad, which Kevin Rudd had stepped away from. That brings a regional focus, but it certainly brings very broad regional focus from India to Australia’s west, to the US to Australia’s east, and of course Japan to our north. So that ensuring we have those sorts of opportunities for dialogue about security across the breadth of the Indo-Pacific, not just looking into one particular [indistinct] and then critically the work in more of an economic diplomacy sense that he took. In pursuing having Mathias Cormann elected to the role of the OECD. Again about ensuring that Australians are in positions of influence. And Marise Payne and the previous government took the same sort of approach in diverse other areas be that Natasha Stott Despoja’s work in relation to gender equality, or be it our work elsewhere in relation to leadership roles in fields of nuclear non-proliferation as well.
Kieran Gilbert: Do you accept that this government is getting a warm reception in Europe and the Pacific and even the United States because of its more, more ambitious climate policies than your government?
Simon Birmingham: Kieran, I think there’s a couple of elements there. I firstly would expect that any new Australian government would have plenty of international partners who were wishing to meet and engage with it, understand its priorities, and that any new Australian government should seize those opportunities that this government is doing, that that’s the right thing for them to do and it’s welcome that it’s a reminder of Australia’s important place in the world that so many different international partners do you want to have that dialogue with the Australian Government. We sometimes do think of ourselves as perhaps a smaller nation or a geographically isolated nation. But the reality is where the world’s 13th largest economy, we sit well and truly in a powerful position geographically in the world and part of the Indo-Pacific, in the most dynamic region of the world, with the challenges and opportunities that come with that. So our perspective is very, very important when it comes to reaching out to the rest of the world. In relation to your question and or the element of your question about policies on climate. I have no doubt that that other partner are interested in understanding the new government’s approach there and that higher levels of ambition in the shorter term that would be welcome by some of those partners. And that is certainly something that personally I look forward to seeing how that hopefully enhances the relationship. The test of all of these areas of dialogue is about the outcomes ultimately achieved. Having the meetings is the simple part of getting the outcomes, of course, is what it requires focus and strategy over the long term.
Kieran Gilbert: Do you think it would be a good idea if the Prime Minister can get to Kiev if we go back to that Ukraine question, there’s a. The suggestion that he might be there after his NATO commitments and then Paris, that he might get to Ukraine. Would that be a good thing?
Simon Birmingham: If the opportunity is there, then I’m sure he will take it. But clearly that opportunity will be informed by all of the security advice as to what it means for the safety of an Australian delegation going in there, as well as indeed what it means for the Ukrainian government at the time. What matters more is the substance of what is taken to the NATO summit and or to Kiev if that opportunity presents itself. That substance needs to be won or building on the type of military support that Australia has already provided to Ukraine. And we’ve seen that from vehicles to missiles to cyber security support. Building upon that is critically important to ensure that Ukraine has the best possible ability to be able to continue to withstand Russia in all its spheres. The type of support as well that is provided to the humanitarian situation that continues to evolve as we see continued tragic scenes of individuals fleeing cities under Russian bombardment, shelling in circumstances that are hard for the rest of us to conceive. So of those areas of practical, tangible support and what I hope and trust Prime Minister Albanese is going to Europe armed with to make sure that Australia has to date, under the previous government being the leading non-NATO supporter of Ukraine, continues to make sure we’re stepping up in that sense.
Kieran Gilbert: The Prime Minister going to Paris as well, to mop up relations as well on that front, do you think a rapprochement is a good thing there? Given the spat Mr. Albanese’s predecessor?
Simon Birmingham: It’s well and truly time, Kieran. It’s more expected that France would be disappointed and upset as a result of the decision on us taken to move from diesel powered submarines to nuclear powered submarines. That was a decision that was necessary in Australia’s long term national interests. But breaking a significant commercial contract like that was going to come with some pain in terms of the relationship. As a government took the decision to do so, knowing there may be no short term, short term costs in terms of financial costs and short term costs in terms of the diplomatic relationship. But for Australia’s long term interests, it was the right decision to take and that’s why we took it. But now that all of the different strands of the commercial relationship have been finalised, I would hope and trust that France is willing to move on. They ought to, because we have so many areas of common interests and common values to be able to work together as two nations right across the globe. As we were discussing before in terms of our cooperative engagement in a whole range of multilateral fora, but also importantly within our region as leading countries throughout each partners of so many other nations within the pacific.
Kieran Gilbert: So from that rapprochement, so maybe the early signs of another, the comments by the Chinese ambassador saying that those 14 grievances, which generated a lot of interest in the last term of government, that they’re not preconditions to starting dialogue. Is that a good thing in your mind?
Simon Birmingham: They certainly shouldn’t be preconditions to dialogue. They should never have been preconditions to dialogue. And it was always counter-productive of China to refuse to engage in dialogue with the democratically elected government of Australia, and that is what they chose to do, and that was unhelpful to the relationship and counter-productive to being able to work through any points of difference when you couldn’t actually have a situation where ministers had direct contact with one another because of China’s refusal to engage in that. What we should see now in the situation where hopefully China will build upon that first initial willingness they showed to to have meetings with Australian ministers. Those meetings should absolutely not come with preconditions and in no circumstance should the Albanese Government countenance anything that would be a yielding of demands to demands from China. We should expect to see an Australian government that continues to stand strongly for Australia’s interests and our expectation should be of China that they will remove unfair trade sanctions that have been applied to Australian industries both directly and indirectly in a range of different sectors-
Kieran Gilbert: This olive branch though is that encouraged?
Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s it’s the way I would hope that China chooses to engage. China should want to be. Should want to engaged with Australia in a constructive way. And that constructive engagement should be without preconditions from the Chinese side, but should be. China should enter that well aware of the fact that Australia views the trade sanctions applied on Australia as being unfair, unjustified, unwarranted, and that they should be removed as quickly as possible. And it is that type of action we should expect to see from dialogue between the two countries.
Kieran Gilbert: Just finally, Hugh White has written a quarterly essay. He’s joining me later in the program. Professor White makes the point it’s called Sleepwalk to War – Australia’s unthinking alliance with America. He believes we have to think more carefully and be more pragmatic about the rising strength of China rather than just simply all in with the US. Has he got a point then?
Simon Birmingham: Kieran, from what I’ve listened to and read so far of, of that, that paper, there are elements of it in terms of of course, noting the size, scale and influence that China is growing into that are obvious points. I don’t agree with the thesis that the relationship with the U.S. is an unthinking one or that the alliance is in any way unthinking. Our approach needs to be one of the alliance plus a role with ASEAN partners and recognition of ASEAN centrality. Plus, our work with other like minded democracies around the world, and indeed, we need to expect that of the United States as well in terms of the way they engage. I look back to to the remarks that current Secretary of State Tony Blinken made right back in his confirmation hearing, where he acknowledged that if you just lined up scale of population or size of economy or military might between the United States and China, you have one equation. But indeed, if you ensure that the United States works cooperatively with all of its like minded democratic partners who share common values around the world, then you have a very different equation in terms of the scope and influence of those nations to shape those international rules, to ensure that international institutions are holding countries like China to account where possible. And that is certainly a very welcome approach that the Biden administration has brought. One that is in Australia’s interest to see continued in terms of that work right around the globe and working with like minded countries who share those similar values. And so the partnership and our alliance with the United States is a critical entry point to that. But just as we were discussing before, other relationships we’ve build, such as the role of the Quad, have been very important in terms of diversifying aspects of those relationships. But ultimately, the work right around all of those democratic nations is really critical to how we all respond together to the challenges of China.
Kieran Gilbert: Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time and good to chat in your new role. We’ll stay in touch.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much, Kieran.