Topics: Cheng Lei; FTAs; Israel

10.15AM AEST
11 August 2023


Laura Jayes:  Joining me live now is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. He’s here in the studio with me. It’s hard to imagine what 10 hours of sunlight a year does to a person. Are you confident Senator that everything that can be done is being done at the moment?


Simon Birmingham: Well Laura, in terms of the words that Cheng Lei, has managed to convey back to Australia or anybody who reads them or has heard them being read there, they’re both beautiful in their poignancy but also heartbreaking in the cruelty that they expose. And that is what it is when we’re looking at a situation where this Sunday marks the third anniversary since her detention; a circumstance where it’s not transparent nor clear what the charges are; what the sentencing is; the trial was held behind closed doors without Australian officials having access to it. So, there are many, many concerns we have the whole way through. I do believe that every effort continues to be made, as it was by the previous government in terms of diplomatic representations, contact with government and all ministers I’m certain continue to raise this at every opportunity as they should – as they must. But I hope that officials sitting in the Chinese Embassy here in Canberra, read these words, see the reaction and the emotion across Australia as people reflect upon it, and that they convey those messages back to Beijing in the strongest possible ways and there is some pause for consideration in Beijing about the toll this takes on Cheng Lei and of course we shouldn’t forget that in similar circumstances – and for an even longer period of time – Dr Yang has been facing in his detention too.


Laura Jayes: So, what leverage does Australia have or are we at the mercy of China’s we hope, eventual goodwill here?


Simon Birmingham: We don’t have the opportunity to control the justice system in any other country. And that is a challenge that we face in a whole number of consular cases. But we should make sure that we put constant, consistent, continuous pressure into the Chinese system for them to apply greater transparency – for justice to actually occur in this regard and for it to be made clear to Cheng Lei exactly what the terms of her incarceration are; what the duration is for there to be an ability if those sorts of things are settled, to start to possibly negotiate about movements, as we would hope to occur, ultimately back to Australia and ultimately, of course for her release knowing that throughout that journey as well contact with her children that I think for so many of us it’s just so heartbreaking to think that is basically non-existent and not available to her, but even worse to them.


Laura Jayes: So much of the justice system, we’re not clear on it, the charges or the trial being held in secret.


Simon Birmingham: It’s not and China of course say that’s because these are national security matters. But ultimately, everybody deserves certain basic, fundamentals when it comes to their rights. And those should include clarity about charges, findings, duration of detention, as well as the types of basics – not just access to controller officials but regular access to family and especially to young children.


Laura Jayes:  Ten hours of sunlight a year to me seems inhumane..


Simon Birmingham: As I said. when reading those words as I did late last night, the sense of poignancy because she describes it with such emotion and such attachment to Australia and almost consideration of thanks and outpouring of gratitude for the reaction in Australia. But then so heartbreaking when you turn to those things and the description of when her blankets had been put out in the sun and brought back in and that she wrapped herself in the blankets and imagined that she was in the sun herself. It’s impossible for any of us really to imagine that toll, and after three years for her to put those words together – to put them to consular officials for them to be able to be conveyed back to her partner, Nick Coyle, and shared with Australians, it shows the remarkable nature of the woman. I, in a past life had the challenge of meeting her sitting there interviewing me when I was Trade Minister, and she was a strong, powerful journalist and to think that she’s enduring this now is just…


Laura Jayes: She’s formidable and strong. Let’s hope this message moves the dial in some ways. I can ask you about a few other things, because a week out from the Labor conference held in Brisbane next week. There’s a few things happening here, first of all a bit of a shingle to the to the unions. What do you think about this idea of giving unions more of a say on any future trade deals that are done – as someone who’s done a couple of these deals? Would that matter?


Simon Birmingham:  The Albanese Government’s got to be really careful that they don’t kill the goose that’s laid the golden egg for Australia. Our economy has transformed over the last few decades, and it’s done that through opening up and opening up process that governments like the Hawke Government played a big role in, as well as the huge expanse of our network of trade agreements achieved under the recent Coalition Government. And during that time, we’ve seen essentially more than 30-years of continuous economic growth in Australia aside from that affected by the COVID lockdown. So, we’ve seen our unemployment hit historic lows, participation in our work force historic highs and our jobs market shift to higher-skilled higher-wage jobs. So really, you’ve got to say that Australia’s opening up to the world has worked to Australia’s benefit. Over the last few years, we’ve routinely recorded trade surpluses month after month after month with the rest of the world and whilst there’s nothing wrong with a Parliamentary inquiry, I hope they look at the evidence and the evidence will show that our trade agreements serve this nation very, very well and they shouldn’t be tinkering or putting in place a process that could make it much harder to do those deals in future.


Laura Jayes: We’ll see what the details are because it could just be a bit of smoke and mirrors, giving the union some perceived power, whether that’s real or perceived.


Simon Birmingham: There’s been a lot of bones thrown to the union movement, to the left-wing of the Labor Party over the last week ahead of the National Conference – the changing policy on Israel.


Laura Jayes: Let’s talk about that, what’s wrong with that because yes, it’s provocative. We know the Israeli lobby in Australia do not like that, but to change the language on the West Bank being occupied and settlements being illegal, isn’t that really in line with what the international community recognises, or no, is that not right?


Simon Birmingham:  Well, firstly, there’s the fact that the Labor Party has said one thing before the last election – reassured Australian’s Jewish communities that there would be no change and that they were in lockstep in terms of policy positions on Israel – and now we’re seeing multiple changes. This is not the first one from the Albanese Government. And so they keep breaking that promise they made. Secondly, you’ve got to look at whether it makes sense – what they’ve said, and the description now around occupied Palestinian territories implies that it is very clear and defined as to what those territories are – that they are Palestinian territories. But the Government can’t actually define and detail that – these are disputed territories. And that dispute needs to be resolved through proper negotiation between the parties to achieve a lasting two state solution and that’s not going….


Laura Jayes: How confident are you of that happening in our lifetime?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I hope it can happen in our life time Laura, I’m not confident that it will happen next week or next month or possibly even next year, but we have to maintain positions that help to drive towards that and just falling down on a position that sounds more driven towards one side doesn’t help to bring people back to the negotiating table; doesn’t help to resolve those disputes.


Laura Jayes: I think even next year is a little optimistic – next century perhaps. Simon Birmingham so good to see you as always.


Simon Birmingham:  Thanks so much.