Topics: Community crisis in Alice Springs; Ludmila Kovaleva visa expiry; Voice to Parliament;

09:20AM AEDT
27 January 2023


Laura Jayes: Ludmila Kovaleva spends her days carrying tourists up and down Broome’s Cable Beach on camels. However, she could be forced to return to her native Russia, where she could face imprisonment or death. Ludmila fled Russia more than a decade ago after calling out the Putin regime. Her last remaining hope now is the intervention of the Immigration Minister, Andrew Giles. After applying and being rejected for protection since 2012.




Either she should have been allowed to apply again or they would have just simply granted her a visa.




Laura Jayes: That is Ludmila’s lawyer, talking to us just a couple of days ago. Joining me now is Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time. I want to start by asking you about this case, and I know you won’t have intimate details of it, but on the face of things, the Government does have the power to intervene here, doesn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it does. Laura. Immigration ministers always have the power to intervene in cases like this. What we know is that Russia is a country that doesn’t tolerate dissidents kindly and doesn’t tolerate those whistle blowers who have called out corruption or indeed other misdeeds by senior officials kindly. And Ms. Kovaleva has, for more than a decade now been seeking asylum and protection, having been part of a family that did indeed call out corruption, misdeeds or otherwise, apparently in Russia. And now you’re right. I don’t have all of the particulars of her case to hand because there are things that only the Government would have. But the Immigration Minister has the power to intervene in this case, and he should make sure that he looks at it as quickly as possible, as comprehensively as possible, and delivers a decision that gives Ms. Kovaleva a clarity about her circumstances so that she can move on with her life, hopefully as safely as possible.


Laura Jayes: I think any fair minded person watching us this morning and now knowing of Ms. Kovaleva’s case would say, well, Australia is part of the Western world, leading the Western world in many ways in imposing sanctions on Russia, denouncing Putin’s actions. It would seem almost hypocritical or at least a bit wrongheaded to send a Russian woman back into a place that we know is dangerous.


Simon Birmingham: Well, since she left Russia, the circumstances have only deteriorated in terms of the tolerance for those who speak out against wrongdoing, the tolerance for those who are dissidents. And of course, we’ve seen Russia act in the most abhorrent ways in relation to its invasion of Ukraine and the type of abuses it’s undertaking against people in that war. But more generally as well, in terms of other attacks on its own soil and elsewhere in the world. So sending anybody back into those circumstances would be a very serious situation and present potentially very real threat to liberty or even life for individuals sent into that situation where they have been critics of President Putin or his administration or where they have called out wrongdoing of those who hold power and use it so ruthlessly in Russia. So I think given all of those circumstances, people would certainly be reasonable in looking at this case at surface level and saying there would be a very strong case for the Australian minister to intervene and to provide that protection. Of course, he’s got to act on the details and I respect that and the Opposition respects that. But at surface level, you’re dealing with with the country where we should think long and hard before putting anybody into that harm’s way in these types of possible circumstances.


Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham, we’ve been focused on Alice Springs and rightly so this week, and it should stretch far beyond this week with a report of Matt Cunningham as bringing us a really frank assessment of what is happening on the ground there. And as he tells us, it’s not just Alice Springs, it’s other camps not far from Alice Springs or Katherine, Tennant Creek, just to name a few. And by the way, for our viewers, Matty’s is okay, by the way, and he certainly is emotional, but he certainly believes in the reporting he’s doing around this. But Mr. Birmingham, as someone who was in Government for a decade and now we see a new federal government try and grapple with these issues, what can honestly be done?


Simon Birmingham: If there were a simple answer to that question, Laura, we would all be in a much better place. These are very complex issues. Now, of course, we’ve seen at a very basic level the fact that withdrawing the protections from the Stronger Futures legislation, the end of the type of restrictions on alcohol that had been in place, made a challenging and difficult situation far, far worse. And so welcome the very limited action that was taken by the government. But clearly, much more is necessary. I think it’s why Peter Dutton made the right call in saying that if there is ever an issue and a place for a royal commission, it is actually in looking at these issues that neither side of politics have been able to comprehensively address or fix. That has gone on for years and years and years and that as soon as you remove the type of protections like alcohol restrictions just spiral even further out of control. And so that’s why actually doing something that gives a comprehensive assessment of what can truly be done in cooperation with locals, but in ways that breaks the cycle of poverty, of violence, of abuse, of addiction, all of these things that that have blighted generations now in parts of the Northern Territory for far too long needs to occur.


Laura Jayes: So much money has been spent, billions upon billions. There has been no lack of goodwill from any political party, whatever the stripe may be. It brings me to the voice. I don’t think anyone’s pretending that a voice in and of itself is going to solve the problems we see in Alice Springs. But we haven’t tried it before. Might this just be a good starting point?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I mean, the voice at its heart is a different form of consultation now. Governments have done lots of consultation in different ways over the years, sometimes accused of not enough, sometimes of not necessarily listening, even when they’ve undertaken that consultation. But the Voice is another bit very much embedded model of consultation. Now, I don’t want to see a referendum for the Voice put and fail. I think that would be a negative step for the country if we end up down that pathway. And it’s why I’m very concerned that Australians now are confused about what is being put forward and that the Government is struggling to be able to address that level of confusion. We are right to want to see and expect detail to be there because that’s what Australians want when they go to vote. Yes, this is a constitutional change, but they want to understand what sits underneath that constitutional change, not just the mere concept of it, but actually how it can hopefully make a difference and how it will work to make a difference. And so whilst there is much detail in the Carmen Langton report, it’s not clear how the government proposes to adopt any of that detail, whether that is precisely how they will adopt it and which options out of it they will proceed with. They really do need to clarify that to give this the best possible chance of success.


Laura Jayes: Why? Because the question is just twofold, isn’t it? Do you want to recognise indigenous people in the Constitution? And do you agree there should be a voice? None of that detail people are voting on.


Simon Birmingham: At a theoretical level. That’s right. But ultimately, when Australians actually go to vote, they have more questions than just that theoretical concept. And so that deserves to be addressed and answered, and it needs to be addressed and answered if you want to give it the best possible chance of success. And that’s why the Government needs to spell out some of that, because it’s not just Peter Dutton or the Federal Opposition asking for detail. I’ve been struck over the Christmas period and the New Year period, the number of different social engagements and so on, where that is, where people pivot to. And I can explain what the concepts are and explain-


Laura Jayes: -the polls do show that, Senator. Absolutely. What you’re saying is right. But the polls also show that even though there is confusion, most people would still vote yes.


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think we have to be very careful about polls on a question like this. I remember polls that used to show that most Australians supported a republic as well. And we know how that referendum went. So caution has got to be applied in this. And I think the government should be seeking to give it every possible chance of success. And frankly, I don’t see what they’ve got to lose by spelling out how it is they would legislate this, how it would be constituted, how the means of consultation that would occur with the voice would be undertaken on what issues, by what means with what frequency. These types of basics that can give people assurance and understanding of, okay, the link you made, how would this help to address the issues in the Northern Territory at present? How would advice be sought and provided and how might it help to frame and influence government policy in that space? Actually, spelling that out could well get many Australians over the line in terms of saying okay, yes, the very way you put that question at the outset, Laura. Millions of have been spent. Governments have tried all sorts of things. It hasn’t worked. Here is how we would engage Indigenous Australians to help frame future approaches that may actually get Australians over the line to say yes, I can see merit in at least trying it. But they do need to have a sense as to how that would be undertaken, not just its sit as a concept.


Laura Jayes: Okay. A lot more to discuss about this. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time. We’ll check in soon.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura. My pleasure.