Topics: Labor weak on Red Sea response;

10:20AM AEDT
21 December 2023


Laura Jayes: Joining us now is the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham. Thanks so much for your time. You may have missed those comments from Richard Marles, but there they are confirming as much. There will be no warships sent by this Government, but there will be extra assistance. Is that acceptable to you?


Simon Birmingham: Laura, this has been a period of embarrassing indecision by the Albanese Government, and the explanations given to date have been woefully inadequate. Ultimately, the Government needs to be clear in terms of why it thinks it is unable or incapable of committing support here. Richard Marles is right in terms of where our strategic priorities and focus as a country needs to be in relation to the Indo-Pacific. But it is also very clear that we rely upon our alliances and our partnerships to contribute and complement our focus in this region, just as those allies and partners would rightly expect us to contribute and partner in other operations, particularly our operations that are so important to Australia and to our region’s interests. Ultimately, what happens in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal is critically important for Australia and our region’s interests. You see more than 12% of global trade flow through that sea channel. The diversion by so many freight and cargo operators to take the longer route will add huge costs to Australia’s economy and to other economies. It will add to inflationary pressures. It will compound economic difficulties for people in a whole range of ways. So, it’s absolutely critical and in our national interest for us to see responses in the Red Sea that do deter Houthi rebels from creating the type of disruption that Iran and other players want to see occur. We should be doing everything we can to work with and to complement our partners. Ideally, that would have seen a more favourable consideration from the Government of sending a ship for which they seem to have been very reluctant from the very moment that any request was first mooted publicly.


Laura Jayes: So, do you think they should have sent a ship?


Simon Birmingham: Well, ideally, they would have given more favourable consideration. We in Opposition are not privy to all of the details…


Laura Jayes: But what does that mean, Senator? To be fair. I mean, they’re tripling the personnel. This wasn’t a request from Joe Biden.


Simon Birmingham: We’re sending…


Laura Jayes: Yeah, it wasn’t a specific request…


Simon Birmingham: We’re sending 16 personnel. Let’s, keep that in context. So, we’re sending 16 personnel. That’s a contribution and of course, it’s a welcome contribution. But the call out went for naval assets to be provided and a range of countries have responded to that call out. The types of countries such as France and the UK, who we warmly welcome to send ships to our region and to collaborate and cooperate in terms of freedom of navigation activities or visits through Pacific islands or a range of different activities that we see as being strategically important for our region, not just for Australia to undertake, but for us to see other countries undertake. There, of course, is within all of those partnerships an expectation that surely, we can contribute as well. That’s for the government to detail the reasons why not. Simply saying our priority is our own region isn’t a good enough reason. Of course, our priorities…


Laura Jayes: Well, why not? Why not? Why isn’t that a good enough reason? I mean, we don’t have a massive navy presence like France, the UK or the US. Our assets are far more limited. Why isn’t that a good enough explanation that we need to prioritise our own region with, as Peter Leahy said this morning, more clear and present risks, perhaps?


Simon Birmingham: Well, if the Government is saying our current operational demands mean we cannot and they want to detail that, that is, of course, one thing for them to actually outline that. They haven’t said that, though. We’ve kind of seen shifting words along the way from the Government. Richard Marles now saying the priority is our region, but not saying that we don’t have the capacity and so it’s unclear whether we are incapable or whether the Government is unwilling of acting. That’s where the Government is being inadequate there. The Prime Minister claims that apparently the US understands, according to the Prime Minister, that our diplomatic efforts will be sufficient. Well, I’m really not sure what that is meant to mean. Nobody would seriously think that Australia has some secret back channel to the Houthi rebels in Yemen that will yield some diplomatic breakthrough with them. So the Prime Minister’s response yesterday was woefully inadequate in terms of providing any type of strategic rationale for the decisions that his Government is making.


Laura Jayes: So, to rebuff this request, do you think this is some extraordinary shift in our foreign policy, or should it not be seen in that light?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it will be viewed with some concern elsewhere around the world. Certainly, hopefully the Government will provide more fulsome responses behind closed doors than it has provided in public, because I think our partners and allies will want reassurance in that as Australia requests focus on our region, we can still be a trusted, valued and reliable partner in other parts of the world. That’s the type of cooperative, collaborative approach that we need to ensure is maintained.


Laura Jayes: Is there any suggestion by not doing this that we would damage that reputation, that we’re not collaborative, we’re not a trusted partner?


Simon Birmingham: Well we have been able to be relied upon when asked previously to operate in these types of scenarios…


Laura Jayes: But does this decision change that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we’re not providing the same type of response on this request as we’ve provided in other similar scenarios in the past. So, of course, you would hope that behind closed doors, even if they are unable or incapable of doing so publicly, that behind closed doors, the government is providing a more compelling reason for the nature of its response on this occasion than it is providing to the public at this point.


Laura Jayes: Fair enough. I just wanted to end by reading a quote to you from Peter Leahy, who’s published a think piece in The Australian this morning. He says that essentially his words that, perhaps some of us need to take a deep breath, not directed personally at you, of course. But he said, we are now just finishing a two-decade long war and a largely unsatisfactory adventure in the Middle East. Let’s not begin a new one. What do you think of that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think we see profoundly different strategic challenges right now that we are having to respond to in terms of the disruption that Iran is seeking to sponsor. Iran sponsors Hamas, which has provoked the conflict in Israel. Iran sponsors the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has provoked this outbreak of attacks on ships in the Red Sea. Iran sponsors Hezbollah. Iran, of course, is also working with Russia to sponsor their war efforts in Ukraine. There is a clear and concerted effort to cause significant disruption and its disruption that flows through and hurts ultimately, Australians at the supermarket counter Australians in paying their day-to-day bills. These might seem to be remote conflicts and issues, but what we’ve seen in terms of what’s occurred in the Ukraine, what we’re seeing as to what’s happening in the Red Sea, is that the disruption being caused is having a significant impact on the global economy, particularly on cost pressures and inflation, and that flows through to all of us in negative ways. Which is why it is in Australia’s interests to work with our partners to ensure that these attempts at disruption are stymied and overcome.


Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham, always good to talk to you and thank you for being generous with your time as you have been all year. I probably won’t get to talk to you again before Santa comes, so have a wonderful Christmas with your family.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks LJ, to you and to all your viewers as well. A very Merry Christmas.