Topic:  Cancelled President Biden visit; Bob Carr; China-Australia trade relationship; Dr Ken Elliott;

09:20AM AEST
Friday, 19 May 2023


Laura Jayes:  Joining us live for reaction, the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. Thanks so much for your time. First of all, concerns over this deal between the US and PNG. Do you share some of those concerns?


Simon Birmingham: This is a very important agreement and perhaps the most disappointing part of President Biden’s cancelled schedule in relation to his visit to our part of the Pacific is the absence and the cancellation of the trip to Papua New Guinea. That was going to be a very significant and symbolic visit. Symbolic in being the first US president to visit Papua New Guinea, significant in terms of building upon President Biden, hosting all of the Pacific Island leaders in Washington, and then returning that visit by engaging with Pacific Island leaders in Port Moresby and holding the dialogue with all of those leaders there. And of course, significant in terms of the security agreements that were to be signed. And I hope that the White House is able to put absolute priority. If there is one thing that they seek to reschedule, it should be President Biden coming and reinstating that visit to the Pacific, to Port Moresby and to Papua New Guinea to ensure they get this security deal sealed and finalised, the other security deal sealed and finalised and that dialogue continue with the Pacific Island nations.


Laura Jayes: So Biden rescheduling the Pacific, you think even more important than coming back to Sydney?


Simon Birmingham: The Australia-US alliance is of course, strong, in great shape, thanks to the AUKUS agreement sealed by the Morrison government and only getting stronger in terms of the different fields of cooperation that will open up. Of course, we will always welcome the US President here and we want to make sure that the Quad is as significant as possible in terms of the work it can do between our four democratic nations. But that visit to Port Moresby was a very valuable part of the President’s itinerary. And if there’s one thing that he can find the means to reinstate, that should be at the top of the priority list for the White House in looking at scheduling. Of course, I’m sure if you were coming to Papua New Guinea, then you would expect that he would find the time to be able to visit Australia as well whilst in this part of the world.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, absolutely. We’re not too far away from PNG. I wonder if you do share the concerns expressed by Bob Carr. Of course he’s no longer in Parliament, so he has the freedom, I think, to be a little less diplomatic. But essentially he’s saying around the cancellation of this visit that the United States under President Biden, we should be wary of the reliability of President Biden given his age. Seeking another term and how that might affect us. Do you share some of that concern?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Bob Carr didn’t miss. He took a swipe at the current administration, potential future administrations, and almost at the heart of American democracy. Which was a pretty appalling thing for a former Labor foreign minister to do, a former Labor premier and somebody who no doubt will seek to continue to have his voice heard within the Labor Party National Conference coming up shortly. And it’s very concerning in terms of the anti alliance type of sentiment coming from Bob Carr, Paul Keating and others and the influence that will have within grass roots or other elements of the Labor Party. That advice should certainly be cast to one side. There are obviously issues which previous administrations have seen around the management of debt ceilings, clashes between Congress and the White House, that do mean schedules have to change. And I think most leaders in any democratic system would understand that. In fact, most leaders across the world understand that ultimately domestic issues can change what you’re able to achieve or influence at a particular point in time internationally. But that doesn’t mean the US is any less reliable, capable or important in terms of its strategic engagement across the world, and particularly within our region and the promotion of peace and stability within our region.


Laura Jayes: That said, we’ve just seen the Trade Minister head to Beijing. He was talking it up, I think, before he went there, Don Farrell, but didn’t really come away with, I think, the assurances that he wanted. But we have seen a bit of a detente when it comes to the timber industry. What how should we read into this? It all seems to be going pretty well, if not slowly.


Simon Birmingham: Well LJ, we should continue to welcome progress. And the fact that China firstly removed its inability or unwillingness to actually have dialogue with Australia. Secondly, has eased some of the tariffs or sanctions in some areas. That’s a good thing. But we should also be very clear about our expectations and the expectations are that China should be fully honouring the terms of the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement. Now that free trade agreement is one that China entered into voluntarily. There’s little for us to be grateful for in terms of China crab walking back to the terms of that agreement. They should be fully honouring the terms of that agreement. And that means that we shouldn’t have to do the type of work around our timber industry, our live seafood industry, let alone be facing continued tariffs on our barley and wine industries who are not getting the type of access under ChAFTA that they should be having. And China should be ensuring that they remove all of those sanctions, all of those different tariffs, so that they are honouring the terms of the free trade agreement they voluntarily entered into. Honouring the commitments they gave to the World Trade Organisation, and they should be doing all of that and we should be expecting them to do that without any sense of condition placed upon Australia.


Laura Jayes: You’ve got to admit the heat seems to have come out of the relationship. It does seem to be headed in the right direction. You wouldn’t expect all these changes to happen overnight, would you?


Simon Birmingham: Globally, there’s been a bit of a change in terms of China easing back on the so-called wolf warrior diplomacy with many different parts of the world. So that’s been welcomed and it’s coincided here with the re-engagement in terms of dialogue. It’s always been counterproductive and always was counterproductive for China to cease having ministerial level dialogue with Australia. These different tariffs and sanctions put in place are also counterproductive for China. And what we’ve seen is that they have unwound them in some ways in the areas that were most harmful to China in the first instance. So letting coal back into China, easing up on some of those resources constraints, moving in the timber industry, they’re all areas where China’s actions were having an impact on China’s economy, on Chinese businesses. What we should expect, though, is that they also ease up in the areas that are having perhaps a slightly greater impact on the Australian businesses, and that’s most pronounced in sectors such as the wine industry or the live seafood sector.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, certainly the wine industry affecting South Australia where you are and we understand your proximity to that. Before I let you go, I want to ask about Ken Elliott. This is a man that we haven’t spoken about all that much over the last couple of years. I feel like we almost forgot about him. But he is a doctor that was kidnapped by Islamic terrorists seven years ago and now he has been freed.


Simon Birmingham: Well, this is a good day for many people, but good day most of all for Dr. Ken Elliott and his family and loved ones. They have always sought to safeguard their privacy. They’ve also always been very conscious, as I know, have Australian diplomats, about the sensitivity in terms of getting his release and the risks around greater public commentary around that. Thankfully, he is now safe. He is now released. That’s a credit to work over many, many years of individuals who sought to establish the type of lines of dialogue and communications to be able to secure this outcome. And it’s a very happy day, no doubt, for Dr. Ken Elliott, his family and loved ones. A man who was doing nothing more than seeking to provide medical and humanitarian assistance to those who need it most.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, absolutely. Just one extra thing on that. I don’t know whether you can give us any information, but why did it take so long and was he were the circumstances forces? Was he treated reasonably well during that time?


Simon Birmingham: I don’t have all of that information, Laura, but certainly we weren’t in a case where the Australian government was dealing directly with foreign governments. He was held by terrorist organisations in West Africa. In that sense, the lines of communication ever more difficult. The challenges around whether demands are reasonable demands or otherwise challenging along the way. And so, a whole range of different sensitivities and difficulties that were encountered throughout that time, I imagine. I doubt that COVID probably would have helped in terms of the types of disruptions caused in different parts of the world too. So, a lot of different efforts by different officials over, as I say, a sustained period of time. A credit that they have managed to find the point of breakthrough and at a point where Dr. Elliott is in the latter years of his life now. And so, I know it will be so important to his family to have him back home.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, it will. And I hope they have a very happy family reunion. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks LJ. My pleasure.