Topics: Covid inquiry; Budget; Rupert Murdoch;  

09:20AM AEST
22 September 2023


Laura Jayes:  Let’s go live now to the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Morning, LJ.


Laura Jayes: This Covid inquiry if it was to look at the premiers, it would also need to scrutinise the former government of which you were a part of more heavily. Would you be happy with that?


Simon Birmingham: Sure, I’d be perfectly relaxed with that, LJ. Look, this inquiry if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. It’s not worth some half baked job that only looks at half of the issues or even less than that potentially. So, the government’s got to work out whether it actually wants to do this properly, in which case go back to the drawing board or if not frankly, scrap the idea, save the money and don’t worry about putting everybody through the hassle of it, because this is a ridiculous proposition to carve out large slabs.

You know, at a personal level, I count myself so lucky to have lived in a state where school closures during Covid were the least of any of the states across the country. So, my kids missed out on very little school. But it’s ridiculous when you think about the amount of schooling that some children missed out on to have an inquiry into how Australia handled Covid and not look at an issue as significant for the wellbeing and welfare of young Australians as well as the productivity and implications of working Australians of those school closures. Just to take one example of an area that was entirely within the domain of the states where the Commonwealth or the Morrison government, I know we worked as hard as we could to try to encourage the states and create an environment for them to keep schools open. But to carve that out is an insult to children, to students, to teachers, to parents. And it’s little wonder that the AMA and the Human Rights Commission and so many others are lining up to say that the terms of reference the Albanese government have struck are a pathetic waste of time.


Laura Jayes: Look, it’s hard to disagree with. I’ve got to say, but I’m getting the vibes that, you know, they’re just saying, well, the Prime Minister and other frontbench ministers are just kind of dismissing the criticism as just coming from the opposition or certain sections of the press gallery or media in Canberra. But this is across the board and it’s not political, it’s about if this happens again. So, do you have any power within Parliament to broaden this scope or is it just the executive?


Simon Birmingham: Well, this inquiry itself is very clearly just an executive initiation. It’s got no legislative underpinnings. It doesn’t have the powers of a royal commission, it won’t require any legislation for its establishment. So, it is entirely within the hands of the government. I don’t think that Australia needs another parliamentary inquiry. So whilst, yes, we could theoretically muster up the numbers for another Senate inquiry or the like into this, I think it is important that if we’re looking back at Covid, it is done with appropriate expertise, free of politics or partisanship. And so that’s why the government should look at doing this properly. And as I said before, if they’re not going to do it properly, then don’t waste everybody’s time and don’t bother doing it at all. If it’s just a tick a box exercise to pretend to honour an election commitment when of course Labor Senators in a Labor dominated Covid inquiry prior to the last election called for a royal commission. So it’s not even living up to the standards that Labor themselves set for themselves, just don’t bother about it. But there’s a chance for the Government to show that it’s big enough to listen, that it’s big enough to take on criticism and to change course and that’s what they should do on this. They’ve been stubborn when it’s come to the way they’ve handled the Voice. They’ve been stubborn in terms of the way they’ve handled criticism over the Qatar decision and access of airlines to Australia. They ought to start to realise that being stubborn all the time is just going to create more and more problems for them if they continue down this path.


Laura Jayes: I mean the scope of the inquiry is an oxymoron in and of itself and the one hand it says it’s going to look at National Cabinet and the decisions made there. But on the other hand, it says there’s no scope to look at unilateral decisions from premiers. You can’t separate those two things because whilst the premiers were all part of National Cabinet, I think it was a great forum. They still went off and made these unilateral decisions and they’re the decisions that affected all of our lives now. Dominic Perrottet I’ve spoken to him this morning. He says he’d be happy to appear before the inquiry will probably make a submission if that’s all he’s able to do. But he points out, Simon Birmingham, that we need to have an inquiry that looks at the decisions of the premiers, himself included, so he can learn what he did right and also what he did wrong. Now he’s no longer the premier right? Annastacia Palaszczuk and Daniel Andrews are. So it strikes me that there’s, you know, there’s elections, there’s a lot of politics involved in this.


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, that is the real risk. And if that is what’s driving the Albanese Government, if it’s actually a protection racket for remaining Labor premiers in Dan Andrews and Annastacia Palaszczuk, well then that is just an insult to Australians who suffered and bore enormous pain at different times during Covid-19. I acknowledge as a political leader during Covid-19 who sat around the Cabinet table and sat around the National Security Committee table making decisions about closing our borders, making decisions about the JobKeeper program and a range of other huge interventions that not all of those decisions will have been perfect. We were dealing with a global crisis, something completely unprecedented in our lifetimes and in modern times. And so, the responses that we had to make were ones that were best endeavours on the best evidence and information available to us.

At a Commonwealth level, though, those responses were also shaped by what the states were doing, the way we had to provide economic response and support to stop businesses from going under and to save jobs in Australia was partly a function of the way the states were applying lockdowns and in which the states had the capacity and power to make those unilateral decisions. So you’re right in that sense, to draft a terms of reference to say, well, we’ll look at the way the Commonwealth responded without looking at the way the states made their unilateral decisions is a disconnect that just renders this inquiry completely pointless, which is why I say the Government needs to stop being stubborn, go back to the drawing board and actually do it properly or just don’t bother and don’t waste everybody’s time.


Laura Jayes: From the two main premiers that still remain in their jobs that were of the Covid era. There seems to be no contrition, no ability to look back and say, You know what, we’ve learnt a bit. If we had our time again, we wouldn’t have done that. We wouldn’t have locked down whole housing towers for months on end. We may not have closed the borders for medical emergencies. We may not have kept families either side of a border for months on end, unable to have any reconnection there. But what about the contrition from the federal government as well? At the time, you’ll recall that your government was threatening people with jail time if they attempted to come back home. Can you look at that with a bit of contrition now?


Simon Birmingham: Certainly, Laura. Look, I would hope that we can have a look through an inquiry about how in the future we might be able to find better ways to bring more Australians home faster. That was one of the big challenges that we faced, and I’m sure that we didn’t get everything right in that regard. It was a challenge to find the aviation capacity and then to find the quarantine capacity within Australia. And we’ve built and established some additional quarantine facilities that are there for the future. But the scale you would be dealing with in terms of the number of people wanting to come back to Australia would still overwhelm any type of permanent quarantine arrangements. So how you actually respond in the future to scale up those types of quarantine facilities is something well worth looking at. And, and where there are no doubt lessons that could be learnt when at the time we just didn’t have any experience in dealing with that type of crisis of repatriating Australians from every corner of the globe. At the same time, compared with historical precedents of just bringing people from one crisis spot or one humanitarian disaster back at a particular point in time. So those issues JobKeeper. Which was a phenomenal success in terms of saving businesses and saving jobs and is one of the functions that is responsible for the budget surplus that’s just been recorded in terms of the economic strength that left in Australia. But can there be lessons learnt in that? Of course, there can be.


Laura Jayes: Also sure the surplus but the inflationary environment that we’re left with as well, right?


Simon Birmingham: Well, and a global trend there in terms of the whole global economy did bounce back more strongly, partly due to supply chain shortages around the world. So those factors contributed. And of course, the war in Ukraine. I mean, there’s amazing chutzpah coming from the Albanese Government claiming credit for this surplus. If you ask them about real wages going backwards or ask them about the cost-of-living crisis and interest rates going up, they will talk to you about the former government, but apparently the surplus is all their doing. So, they’ll take responsibility for that, but not for the things causing Australians pain. And I know you’re talking to Chris Richardson shortly and he’s been very clear that this surplus has nothing to do with any decisions of the government. It really is a function of a strong economy and indeed some of those global pressures, the war inflation and other factors. And what I thought was particularly remarkable was yesterday Anthony Albanese dismissed as very minor the role of commodity prices in the surplus, which suggests to me that there’s a need to go back and perhaps get a bit of Budget 101 lessons to understand a big part of what has driven some of the huge revenue gains which are really underpinning this surplus.


Laura Jayes: I thought you might say that. And you’re right. We will speak to Chris Richardson, but thank you for that. Before I let you go, as a South Australian politician, I can’t let you go without asking you about Rupert Murdoch and the legacy that he has left as he takes on a different role within News Corp and Fox Corp. I mean, he started there with one Adelaide newspaper.


Simon Birmingham: Yeah, it is a remarkable story and an ordinarily I’d be joining you from the Adelaide studio in Murdoch House, which Rupert Murdoch came back to open and for many, many years the News Corp AGM was held in Adelaide every single year marking that beginnings of what is an incredible empire. Rupert Murdoch is arguably the most significant Australian businessman of our nation’s history in terms of impact on the global stage and impact across multiple countries and continents. He has had amazing success, been incredibly impactful. Of course, also been controversial and his legacy will be one that is assessed for many, many years to come, and that is a demonstration of the power and impact that he has wielded.


Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham, good to talk to you. A long one today. We don’t get to do that very often. I’ll see you soon.


Simon Birmingham: Pleasure. Thanks, LJ.