TopicsHousing deal; Albanese Government in transparency crisis; Qatar Airways decision; G20 Leader’s Statement; PM trip to China; Voice to Parliament; Foreign Minister call with Qatari PM;

03:18PM AEST
11 September 2023

Andrew Clennell: Let’s bring in the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham. No shortage of subjects to talk about, frankly. Let’s start with this deal on the Housing Australia Future Fund between the Greens and the Government. What do you make of it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, again, we see the Government magically finds another billion dollars. First it was 1 billion, then it was 2 billion, then it was $3 billion. They just kind of keep trying to throw money at the problem to mask over the fact that ultimately this is bad policy. And that’s why the Coalition remains firmly opposed to this proposal as we were during the election campaign and we are now because it will do nothing to help home ownership rates in Australia.

Andrew Clennell: What about the $3 billion, though? Will that do something?

Simon Birmingham: That’s not going to help home ownership rates. I mean, it’s not even clear at all as to how that’s going to be spent by states and territories. This is a figure, it’s almost a hollow man type figure. Let’s see what we can give the Greens as a big sum for them to wave around that might pay them off to get them to vote for this legislation. But there’s no detail about how that is going to be invested, where it is going to be invested or what difference it will make. And there’s nothing about any aspect of these policies that goes to the core issue around home ownership.

Andrew Clennell: So they’ve paid them off. Simple as that. That’s what you’re saying.

Simon Birmingham: Well, this seems to have been a very long, drawn out saga between Labor and the Greens that ultimately is just seeing taxpayers having to cough up another $3 billion just to make the Greens happy and get their votes with no clarity about how or where it’s going to be spent.

Andrew Clennell: All right. Let’s talk about this Qantas/Qatar Airways issue. Now the deputy PM, then acting PM, Richard Marles was on the program yesterday. He said Catherine King didn’t consult him before making the decision. The PM’s told the Parliament that a couple of times now. Does the Opposition think they’re lying?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I mean, this is a truly remarkable and abhorrent decision making process by the Government. Catherine King comes out and says she consulted ministers. The Prime Minister says he wasn’t consulted. The Deputy Prime Minister says he wasn’t consulted. Also today, the Trade and Tourism Minister has indicated he was not consulted. Now, come on. Extra flight capacity into Australia and you’re not consulting the Trade and Tourism Minister, probably the stakeholder with the biggest interest in this. It is just an abhorrent process.

Andrew Clennell: Could this be stuff up, not conspiracy on the part of the minister? I mean, you’ve been trying to build a conspiracy that the PM knew. The PM told her to do this. That’s kind of the implication of it all. You know, they’re running a protection racket for Qantas. What? Isn’t it possible that she simply made the decision on her own, having only consulted Penny Wong?

Simon Birmingham: Well, whether. It’s stuff up or conspiracy, it’s a gross failure by the Minister and the Government and it underpins the need for review of this decision. And that’s what the Prime Minister, if he was going to show any leadership should do, he should demand that this decision be reviewed and transparently reviewed with proper modelling about its impact on airfare prices into Australia, its impact on the tourism industry, its impact in terms of freight capacity out of this country. These are all things that the Senate inquiry we’ve now established will be able to have a look at and test, but the Government shouldn’t wait for that. They should realise this is a debacle and actually get on and undertake a proper, thorough review of this decision and a transparent one at that. Because it’s the secrecy around this. I mean yesterday the Deputy Prime Minister invented a whole new term in your interview, national aviation interest. None of us had heard of that before. Up until then, the Government had been saying this decision was in the national interest, but they refused to say what the grounds were in the national interest. Yesterday, apparently it’s now in the national aviation interest. Well, what’s the definition for that?

Andrew Clennell: Yeah. And he went on about that because they don’t fly into other airports, but no one else does. Let’s have a listen to something that happened. You’re in the Senate. You wouldn’t have heard that. The reps. Let’s have a listen to this.


Andrew Clennell: You’re fishing a bit. I mean, he said Scott Morrison invited Alan Joyce to the lodge. I never have. It’s a bit of an own goal, that one, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Andrew, it goes indeed to the fact that the Prime Minister has had to be dragged to give answers around this. Remember, we took days, indeed weeks for the PM to give a straight answer about whether he had any discussions with Minister King. He’s still being evasive about what role his office had. And so, yes, there is an exploring of all of the different possible issues and aspects here because the Prime Minister has just not been transparent and upfront with his answers around this. Just as the Government has failed to give clear, direct responses in relation to actually how this decision was made.

Andrew Clennell: So do you think the PM’s too close to Alan Joyce? Do you know how Cabinet government works? Sometimes there’s not a direct instruction. Sometimes you would have heard Scott Morrison say something generally at the Cabinet table and thought as a Minister, oh, he must want me to go down that path. Is that kind of what could have happened here in your view?

Simon Birmingham: Oh, there’s certainly the possibility that Minister Catherine King thought this is what the boss will want, this is what the PM will want, and therefore that’s the way I’m going to go. Even more likely, she thought that if she had direct contact with people in the Prime Minister’s office who might have given her a steer in terms of attitudes or likely expectations. And again, it’s why probing is appropriate. But it shouldn’t be necessary. The government should be upfront and honest about its engagements rather than actually hiding behind this veneer. And it’s a veneer that’s crumbling around them with different excuses day after day as to why this decision was made.

Andrew Clennell: All right. Well, let’s move on to the G20 now in your position as shadow foreign. Let’s have a listen to what Anthony Albanese said about the memorandum that they got to under Narendra Modi here.


Anthony Albanese: The G20 has delivered a strong consensus message on Russia’s war on Ukraine. That message is very strong language, and it’s the strongest language yet to be agreed by the international community.


Andrew Clennell: So, he says it’s the strongest language yet, is it?

Simon Birmingham: I think that is misleading. It is welcome that India was able to achieve a consensus statement and under their leadership and Prime Minister Modi’s leadership, it’s to acknowledge they got a consensus statement. That does set out some very important principles in terms of the UN Charter and the right and respect that should be accorded to the sovereignty of other nations. But if you look back to the G20 statement issued last year from Bali, there were direct references there to the UN General Assembly motions that had been passed previously describing the deplorable actions of Russia at that time. That was clearly much stronger language.

Andrew Clennell: Do you think he forgot the last one?

Simon Birmingham: Well, he was there. He was in Bali.

Andrew Clennell: Yeah, I know. I was there. Do you think he got sucked in a bit by Narendra Modi on this or, you know, maybe you don’t have an option when India is the host, but do you think that’s a bit of a gaffe to say it’s the strongest?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it’s important to recognise what India did achieve and the Prime Minister could have done that, but it’s overreach on his part and it’s unnecessary overreach. And all it does is play into a debate like this. I mean, we’re seeing this ridiculous proposition being pushed around by Russia and Foreign Minister Lavrov saying how good the statement out of the G20 is. That in itself is a gross misrepresentation of the statement.

Andrew Clennell: You wouldn’t be too happy to see that, would you, if you’re Anthony Albanese and you said it’s the strongest and then say okay.

Simon Birmingham: That’s where the Government’s got to actually get its act together and the Prime Minister be clear in terms of how he handles sensitive issues of foreign policy like this, be across the detail of the two statements. Be understanding as to what the consequences of them are. Highlight what good India achieved, which are the principles that were outlined clearly, but equally highlight still the deplorable nature of Russia’s invasion, as the Bali statement did and don’t leave any room for somebody like Foreign Minister Lavrov on behalf of Russia to claim any sense of victory out of it.

Andrew Clennell: Now, Scott Morrison got up in your party room and indicated he was concerned about the Albanese trip to China and acquiescing to China. What did you make of those comments and what do you think of the PM going?

Simon Birmingham: Well, if the Prime Minister is going, as he’s indicated, he will, he needs to be absolutely confident he’s going to achieve real outcomes for Australia in terms of further removal of China’s coercive sanctions against our trade and our industry and meaningful progress in terms of fairer treatment of the detained Australians. He needs to make sure, and this is at the heart of what I’ve seen in terms of the reporting of Scott Morrison’s comments. He needs to make sure that the trip, if it’s to occur, is a working trip with outcomes for Australia, not one that can be used for propaganda or other purposes by China. It’s got to be reaching outcomes not symbolism.

Andrew Clennell: Scott Morrison has a point on that. Sounds like you he might have?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s- I’ve always made sure that we provide bipartisan support for the Government to do what we can in terms of stabilising the relation with China to get the unfair targeting of Australia removed by China. We want to see outcomes and breakthroughs there. We also have to make sure that we use every engagement, particularly a prime ministerial engagement for practical outcomes, not symbolism that could be used for other purposes.

Andrew Clennell: Do you think this trip will lead to Cheng Lei being released and Yang Hengjun?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it would be a remarkable breakthrough and probably a surprising one to see that degree of outcome. But I want to see real progress from the Government in committing to this trip needs to have confidence there will be meaningful progress, that there is fairer treatment for these individuals, greater clarity around what their sentencing is, around access to family or other members, around potential repatriation to Australia and release as well as, of course, the types of breakthroughs that still need to be seen for our wine industry, for live seafood exporters and for others who are still being unfairly targeted as a result of China’s attempted coercion.

Andrew Clennell: All right. Just a couple of quick things before we go. Let me ask about the Voice and the second referendum. How do you feel about another referendum?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I would much prefer that the Government had actually bowled up a unifying national proposition the first time around. What Peter Dutton is talking about is trying to achieve that down the track. Now, it’s regrettable that the Government has mishandled this so badly to date and put it in the position where poll after poll is now indicating that Australians are seeing real concerns in relation to this proposal. Peter Dutton’s proposition is to have the unifying step of constitutional recognition, something we have long supported as a Coalition. Of course, to take that to a vote you would need to make sure you built up the support, the unity that should have occurred this time, and that’s what he would commit to do as prime minister.

Andrew Clennell: Why do you think Penny Wong rang the Qatari PM last week?

Simon Birmingham: Look, that’s a matter for Minister Wong to outline in terms of what prompted her at that particular point in time to do so. I gather she’s indicated that the decision in relation to aviation access was not part of this conversation, but it seems surprisingly coincidental timing.

Andrew Clennell: Simon Birmingham, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, thanks for your time this afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Andrew. My pleasure.