Topics: ASIO Director General warning on foreign interference; US warning to China; Labor backflip on superannuation;

10:35AM ACDT
22 February 2023

Tom Connell: Joining me now is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. Thanks so much for your time. Have you ever been lobbied to try to weaken Australia’s espionage laws?

Simon Birmingham: Hello, Tom, good to be with you. Well, the answer to that is not to my knowledge. I’ve received many briefings from different security and intelligence officials over the years in terms of precautions to take and what to look out for. And every senior member of government, every senior member of parliament, should be receiving and taking those sorts of briefings so that they are alert and they are cautious in their dealings when perhaps some of those risks may be apparent or possible in any type of dialogue or discussion they’re having.

Tom Connell: So what do you make in particular of talk of business sector and public sector, you know, warning of these laws and talking about watering them down? Is that something they shouldn’t be mentioning? Is that outside their remit?

Simon Birmingham: Well, this is quite startling in terms of the very direct way that the ASIO Director General has highlighted these concerns. Now, one of Australia’s great achievements over the last few years is that we have stood tall, strong and firm in the face of economic coercion attempts by China against Australia. China’s reactions to the Coalition government’s strengthening of foreign interference, foreign influence, foreign investment laws, protection in relation to critical infrastructure, our decisions in relation to Huawei. These were all decisions that were taken in the nation’s long term national interest to safeguard our democracy, our freedoms, our economy. But they also obviously had negative repercussions in terms of the way in which China reacted. We saw the range of trade sanctions applied. But Australia stood firm. The Coalition government stood firm. To its credit, the Labor Government has not sought to change any of those Coalition government policies and indeed Australian business and industry stood firm around that. It’s important we continue to show that high level of resolve and the suggestion from the ASIO Director General that there are parts of business, industry, community or alarmingly government within Australia who have suggested that there should be a softening or a weakening in relation to some of the approaches of safeguarding Australia by our intelligence agencies is something that should be ruled out. Prime Minister Albanese today should take the opportunity to indicate his Government will have a zero tolerance approach to such attitudes, that they will maintain support for our intelligence agencies, that they will act to strengthen the types of regimes put in place by the Coalition where recommendations and need requires it to do so, and there won’t be any trade off that occurs between economic and national security principles.

Tom Connell: We’ll hear from the PM, of course, later today. There’s also been in an international front, a warning from the US for China not to provide weapons to Russia. That that could be on the menu. If that happens, would Australia need to look at sanctions on China?

Simon Birmingham: The short answer there and it’s obviously hypothetical at this stage, but any country who is actively supporting Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine deserves to be a target of sanctions if they are providing weapons, if they are providing military assistance and support to Russia for the undertaking of this illegal and immoral invasion. Then there should be consideration of the application of sanctions. We have applied actions against Russia and we have indeed targeted certain actions against Belarus and indeed also against Iran. So it would logically extend elsewhere. And I would hope that this week the Government, given the first anniversary of this attempted whole scale invasion by Russia, that the Albanese government this week should and must announce a package of additional support for Ukraine, additional military support, additional humanitarian support, and also a doubling down with the international community of actions against Russia and any other nation states who support Russia by military means in their invasion against Ukraine.

Tom Connell: All right. Interesting. We’ll see if that obviously happens. Labor just finally in the last topic is talking about superannuation just on some of the concessions. Is it right to say there are excesses here? I mean, there are tax concessions for super accounts with more than $5 million in them. They cost the country $1.5 billion a year. Is that a reasonable use of taxpayer money?

Simon Birmingham: Tom, it’s important people remember the difficult decision taken by the Turnbull Government to put in place some limitations in relation to what retirement or pension accounts can look like for senior Australians. The $1.6 million limit that did then put some restrictions around the type of tax concessions that can apply. I can recall Labor pretty hypocritically seeking to take advantage of those reforms at the 2016 election. But they’re important reforms that have made the system more sustainable for the future. Now, at the last election, Mr. Albanese was pretty clear that he was not bringing forward any policies or plans to change superannuation taxation. He was pressed as to whether he had any. He said he didn’t. He was pressed again. He said that he would release any if he did have them. He did not release any such policies. If he’s going to propose new policies and new taxes on Australia’s superannuation accounts, then he should take it to the next election and let the Australian people decide transparently whether they back a higher taxing agenda from Labor.

Tom Connell: So that will be put to Labor. Can I just ask you though, a follow up on that. Do super accounts with $5 million plus and then really need tax concessions?

Simon Birmingham: Tom, that is indeed why the Turnbull Government and the Coalition put in place reforms around pension and retirement savings accounts that do reduce the type of tax concessions that are available to Australians. So we have recognised these challenges in the past and we acted and we paid a bit of an electoral price when Labor decided to attack us over elements of those changes at the time. But we did it recognising this needs to be a sustainable system for the future. Labor, if they’re going to do likewise, ought to make sure that they are up front and honest. We are still less than 12 months since the last election and less than 12 months since when Anthony Albanese was issuing clear denials about any new super taxes.

Tom Connell: Perhaps we’ll talk if it does become a live debate. Yes, I know the concessions are reduced, but they still exist for those accounts, $5 million plus. Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Tom. My pleasure.