Topics: Ukraine; Professor Turnell; Optus; COVID isolation

Danica De Giorgio: Welcome back to the program. Well, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reiterated his threat to use nuclear weapons if Russian territory is attacked with conventional weapons. A key official has made the threat as President Putin is set to formally begin annexing 15% of Ukraine’s territory. Joining me now live is the shadow foreign minister, Simon Birmingham. Thank you for your time this morning. So, Russia’s attempting to annexe southern and eastern Ukrainian territory. How concerned should the West be?


Simon Birmingham: Well, good morning, Danica. Look, this, this claimed annexure is illegal; it’s in breach of UN laws; it is an act that is the result of Russia taking this territory by force. We have now seen these sham referenda undertaken that have no credibility whatsoever. It’s just further demonstration of the fact that the world needs to continue to put more pressure onto Russia and provide as much possible support as it can to Ukraine. There is no legal validity, no moral validity to Russia’s annexation of these territories.


Danica De Giorgio: Well, in terms of more support, we know that Ukraine has asked Australia for more Bushmasters. Have you at all been given an update by the federal government as to where it’s at when it does come to additional support?


Simon Birmingham: Look, the government claims it’s working through these processes. I urge them to do so as quickly as possible. There are still Bushmasters that were part of the initial promise Australia made to Ukraine that have not been delivered, and we should be ensuring that they are dispatched as quickly as possible. On top of that, Ukraine has outlined additional requests for support, and we ought to provide as much support as we can as swiftly and comprehensively as possible. Of course, that has to be done by taking advice from the Australian Defence Force about what can be done, when it can be done, how it can be done safely and in Australia’s interests. But it is in Australia’s interest to help Ukraine continue their heroic defence of their territory as a sovereign state, being threatened by another, being invaded by another. It’s in the interests of all other sovereign states to help to push back against Russia, to help to ensure that they are not ultimately successful so as to provide a deterrent to anybody else doing likewise in the future.


Danica De Giorgio:  Now we’ve got Vladimir Putin also threatening the use of nuclear weapons. Do we have to brace ourselves that this could now be a protracted conflict?


Simon Birmingham: Well, this has of course dragged out longer than many expected, but it’s dragged out longer than expected because Ukraine has put up such strong and mighty defence so far and that Russia has not been able to succeed in the ways that had been anticipated. And despite the annexation attempts we’re seeing at present, indeed, Ukraine has had some success in even driving Russia back from some of their earlier gains, which is an enormous credit to them. The threats, though, to use nuclear weapons are immoral, they are alarming and they are again reason why all nations of the world should be seeking to apply as much pressure directly on Russia to cease and desist their illegal actions in relation to Ukraine. And I again urge and encourage those who have greater influence over Russia, such as nations like China, to try to apply as much influence as they can in conjunction with the rest of the world who have applied such sweeping sanctions to date.


Danica De Giorgio:  Let’s move on now. Overnight, Australian economist Sean Turnell was sentenced to three years in a Myanmar jail. Firstly, what is your reaction to this sentence?


Simon Birmingham: It’s deeply disappointing and distressing. Professor Sean Turnell has never had anything other than the best interests of the people of Myanmar in mind in the work and the policy work that he undertook for the government in Myanmar. This will be a terribly distressing time for his family. We as a Coalition have long-stated our concerns about his arbitrary detention; the secrecy surrounding his trial and now the secret secrecy surrounding his sentencing. We continue to give all support to the current government in all of their efforts to have him returned safely to Australia as quickly as possible.


Danica De Giorgio: How should Australia respond to this?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I trust the Government will be engaging through whatever means they possibly can to the regime in Myanmar, seeking to pursue any and all avenues to have Professor Turnell returned to Australia as quickly as possible. That’s got to be the objective here. Of course, we all have the concerns, as I said, about the secrecy of the trial; the secrecy and sentencing; the handling practices and so on. But ultimately the ambition and objective needs to be to try to secure his release and his return and to have that happen as quickly as possible and we will give whatever support we can to the government in that regard.


Danica De Giorgio: I want to ask you about the Optus hack this week. Of course, it’s been dominating the news headlines throughout the last week. In your view, has Optus handled this in the right way?


Simon Birmingham: I’m sure there will would be many case studies undertaken in the years to come around crisis management and the way in which the company’s responded. These are always unique circumstances and difficult for companies. Look, I’m not going to give a (unclear) to many customers. I think we’ve seen some state governments respond relatively quickly; relatively efficiently in terms of trying to provide support around things like driver’s licenses. Its been disappointing to see the federal government has been more flat- footed when it’s come to matters around passport replacements or the like and they really do need to get their act together to ensure that Australians worried about their privacy, worried about the safety of their identity, can be able to get those sorts of replacement documents as quickly, as swiftly as possible, at no cost to them whilst negotiating for Optus of course, to meet and pay compensation for costs incurred to governments and others.


Danica De Giorgio: Does the executive team need to go? Do you think that somebody needs to pay the price for what’s occurred here?


Simon Birmingham: That’s a matter for Optus’s management. They’ll be conscious of the brand and reputational damage that’s happened and the fact that the longer uncertainties drag on, the longer concerns drag on, clearly that will be exacerbated and that will no doubt weigh on their thinking about such matters.


Danica De Giorgio:  Just finally, National Cabinet today meeting. The New South Wales Premier is leading the charge to scrap mandatory COVID isolation. Is it time for it to go, do you think?


Simon Birmingham:  Well, we are on a journey towards effectively self-management and regulation around COVID. And that’s appropriate as we come to terms with the fact that COVID variants have changed over time; that vaccine rates are significantly high. There’ll continue to be roles for government, particularly in relation to booster shots and continued public health messaging around COVID. But we will have to rely on people taking greater self-responsibility for determining how they isolate when they are sick, just as we expect people to isolate with other forms of communicable viruses or the like. And so, I think that is logical. Clearly, national cabinet today should be listening to the health advice too, and getting the right balance of those outcomes on what is a trajectory, though, that I would expect to see ultimately these types of mandatory requirements removed and expectations on people to take the type of responsibility that we should expect of people when they are sick and when they pose a risk to others.


Danica De Giorgio:   Well, it certainly will be interesting to see what that outcome is. Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham, we have to leave it there. Thanks for joining us.


Simon Birmingham:  Thanks