Topics: Foreign Minister meeting Chinese counterpart – Ukraine, Robodebt Royal Commission
09:20AM AEDT
3 March 2023


Laura Jayes: The Foreign Minister, Penny Wong has met her new Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in India. She faces the tricky task of toeing the diplomatic line as Australia looks to improve relations with China. But she also denounced recent rhetoric from Beijing on Russia’s war effort. Joining me live now is the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham.


Thanks so much for your time. It is tricky, isn’t it, this diplomatic tightrope, particularly when it comes at a time where, you know, we need our trade sanctions to be lifted; we need our relationship with China to improve. But we also, as a modern country on the world stage, need to make sure that China isn’t going to start supporting Russia.  Has Penny Wong done a good job?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it sounds like the right messages were delivered. And we have to make sure that first and foremost, we stick by all of the core principles that protect Australia’s national interest. And Australia’s national interest is served by defending international sovereignty; defending respect for borders; defending the international rules-based order and international laws. So all of that means that making sure we continue to support Ukraine, defend it, call Russia out, and indeed make it very clear to countries like China that they should certainly not be supporting Russia, they should not be aiding or providing weapons, but indeed they should be doing the opposite and that is putting pressure on Putin to cease this war and this illegal invasion of Ukraine. That is what we would expect to see and needs to be the continuous message that Australia has –  delivered, of course, in a way alongside clarity that whilst we have those differences, whilst we may have these points to make, yes we want to make sure that we can also work towards the peace and prosperity of our Indo-Pacific region and engage as bilateral partners successfully where we can. That’s where we want to see these sorts of talks – Penny Wong with the new Chinese foreign minister, but now multiple engagements that we’ve seen by this Government with China, we want to see it start to yield results for Australia too in terms of actual movement in abolishing those trade tariffs and sanctions that are in place; the release of the unfairly detained Australians within China, that type of progress is really important to see soon too.


Laura Jayes: What is your read of the situation? Because we see these carefully-worded statements from China about the war in Ukraine and it talks about both sides needing to lay down their arms, essentially. Now, you know, there is concerns, obviously in the West that China might actually be thinking about, at the very least, trying to aid Russia’s war efforts. What would that mean, do you think? How big of an escalation would that be if China did become directly involved?


Simon Birmingham: It would be a very concerning and very dramatic escalation for China to become involved through the provision of weapons, through the provision of any type of military assistance to Russia. It is in everybody’s interest to see this war, this illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine cease; for Russia to lay down arms and to come to the peace table for meaningful negotiations. And so it is in China’s interest for that to happen, in terms of what it would mean for stabilising the world economy and for enabling more normalised trade flows and other pressures to be achieved equally to make sure that that it is in the interests of all other parties. And that’s why China should be doing the complete opposite of providing arms; it should be making sure that it is putting pressure on Vladimir Putin to cease and desist from his activities and Russia’s invasion.


Laura Jayes: Okay, let’s bring it back home now. Superannuation, the debate has been raging and I don’t say that lightly. This is something that has people exercised, even if it doesn’t direct them directly affect them. Simon Birmingham, we hear this morning that it could be well more than 80,000. Is that just a scare campaign or do you have real concerns about who this might affect?


Simon Birmingham: This will clearly affect an impact and growing number of Australians because Jim Chalmers from the outset has been clear he doesn’t want to index the $3 million figure. And so each and every year you can expect to see thousands more Australians captured by this and indeed analysis at present showing that without indexation younger Australians are looking at an effective cap well below the $3 million level. But it’s the chaos alongside the broken promise around this that is most remarkable. This is no way for a government to make its budget policy. This Government has been scrambling around with all manner of different proposals aired; the Treasurer seeking to keep some on the table; the Prime Minister then knocking them out. This measure being announced.  But without the PM or the Treasurer able to answer basic questions such as will those Australians who are impacted by this be able to withdraw money without penalty from their superannuation accounts? Neither of them have been able to answer that question. They don’t know how they’re going to treat unrealised gains in assets; they don’t know how they’re going to treat those on defined benefits pensions; they can’t answer the most basic questions around a policy that they appear to have just announced on the run as a cash grab to prop up their intent for higher government spending.


Laura Jayes: So on the defined benefit scheme, do you think that should be pared back for the sake of fairness?


Simon Birmingham: Well there should be equity in treatment in that regard. And it’s for the Government to make sure that in design of this policy that that they’ve brought out, they do provide equitable treatment for different types of superannuation, pension retirement schemes that operate – and obviously defined benefit schemes sit in that realm. So we’ll be looking to make sure that the Government can answer those questions effectively and does give full consideration to how – if it’s going to go down this path – it does so in an equitable way for people, not ensuring that one class of Australians is more heavily penalised than others who are in otherwise quite similar circumstances.


Laura Jayes: I want to now go to Stuart Robert and yesterday in his testimony to the Robodebt Royal Commission, he said that he made false statements supporting Robodebt despite personal misgivings and says essentially, he wasn’t permitted to tell the truth about the unlawfulness of the scheme because he was bound by Cabinet solidarity. You’re a shadow cabinet minister. You’re a former cabinet minister. Is that how Cabinet works, Simon Birmingham?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Cabinet should have full and frank discussions and information in relation to major policy decisions or major policy issues – that’s as a principle level how Cabinet should work. Cabinet solidarity does bind ministers to support decisions of Cabinet; those decisions all need to be, of course, properly informed and contested across the different arms of government. Now I haven’t been watching the testimony coming out of out of the Royal Commission, but I think it’s pretty clear there were problems in the administration of this scheme. There are lessons that obviously need to be learned and the Royal Commission report will be interesting in terms of what it recommends or finds as to how to ensure that effective communication across government is better achieved in the future.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, sure, but the testimony he gave yesterday to extrapolate that out, he said essentially he had to lie or present a very different view to the Australian public about the realities of the Robodebt scheme, which was already found to be unlawful by the time he was minister in charge because of Cabinet. So essentially, he’s saying I had to lie because I was in Cabinet and that was our position. Is that what you found Cabinet confidentiality and solidarity to be?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I never found myself in in that position. There are times where you can’t provide information because of Cabinet sensitivities; there are times where you might be explaining or defending policies that that you didn’t personally support around the cabinet table; but that’s what Cabinet solidarity is about, having that contest of ideas around the Cabinet table, then coming out of the room united in terms of a position there. Ultimately, in terms of these issues there are a lot of different junctures in terms of the legal processes that I can recall, at least, it was never my portfolio responsibilities, but the legal processes around some of these cases and the different appeals or other mechanisms that were being looked at through that time. And so, I suspect all of these issues need to be segued against what the position of government at the time was in terms of defending its legal position and defending those cases or appealing those cases, which, of course, is a normal part of the legal system.


Laura Jayes: I mean, I guess it tells us that not all ministers are created equal – but what should we learn from this? What should your side of politics…


Simon Birmingham: None of us are Laura, in any aspect of life.


Laura Jayes: …yeah, but sure, but there are some that are certainly guided by a higher ethical code and some that do have the guts to speak out and have those difficult conversations within Cabinet and within their own party because they’re actually good at their job. Some just aren’t.


Simon Birmingham: Well, a cabinet table, a shadow cabinet table, a caucus or a party room for those who are not on the frontbench, I mean they are the places for all of us to speak out, to speak our mind and, yes, that does sometimes mean that you find yourself on the losing side of an argument and then have to front up….


Laura Jayes: I suspect you probably won’t answer me here, but do you ever remember Stuart Roberts’ speaking his mind and speaking about his so-called misgivings around a cabinet table?


Simon Birmingham: I think your suspicions are kind of correct in that I’m not going to start going over what the actual discussions of cabinets that I sat around were – those papers will be released in accordance with the law in the years to come.


Laura Jayes: I look forward to doing that in 20 years – hopefully I’m still here. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time as always. Appreciate it.


Simon Birmingham: I’m sure you will be.