Topics: Foreign Minister visit to China; Australia-China relations; Coalition policies;

01:32PM AEDT

19 December 2022


Tom Connell:  With the latest indication of relations thawing between China and Australia, the Foreign Minister, Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong, will visit China this week and meet with her counterpart to coincide the day that there have been 50 years of relations between the two countries. It will be the first ministerial visit in four years. Joining me live now is the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham. Thanks for your time. Your reaction, first of all, to this news.


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Tom. It’s good to be with you. Well, it’s appropriate that Australia and China mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations. I did so with Minister Wong and China’s ambassador to Australia at a function just last month. And indeed this opportunity to do so is appropriate and provides a chance to try to seek and achieve progress against some of the difficult things in the relationship, such as China’s unfair and unjustified trade sanctions against Australia and of course the detention of Australians in very difficult and concerning circumstances.


Tom Connell: So, your release on this initially talked about welcoming this move but it all being about what actually stems from it in terms of concrete action. We can’t get the action without this happening. Do you- are you going to give the government a bit of time and clearer as well rather than waiting straight after the meeting and saying, where are the results? You can see it’s just going to take months, years to slowly, we hope, remove the impediments in the relationship.


Simon Birmingham: Well, Tom, we’re realistic. We don’t expect that everything is solved instantly. But there is a reality to the fact that the government has benefited from China’s decision to cease their counterproductive ban on ministerial level dialogue. It’s been welcome that the meetings have taken place already between foreign ministers, defence ministers, Prime Minister and President Xi. These have all been welcome breakthroughs and as is this discussion. It was always, as I say, counterproductive for China to have that ban in place on dialogue that otherwise can enable countries to advance their mutual interests and deal with areas of disagreement. But now, as we’re seeing this settle into more of a pattern of discussion and dialogue, the test will be whether we see progress in the removal of those unfair trade sanctions and whether we see progress in the release of detained Australians and indeed progress on sensitive regional issues such as ensuring peace and security within our region and of course issues of human rights concern within China too.


Tom Connell: In the spirit of reflecting, though, on your time in government, we’ve got, of course, the election review, some details that have been revealed today. Are you also in a mood to reflect on not you personally, but the coalition’s actions and in particular language on China that perhaps some of the rhetoric wasn’t helping?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Tom, in terms of actions, the previous government took a number of actions that were entirely necessary and of course have been recognised and maintained by the current government. So, our strengthening of foreign interference laws, our strengthening in relation to foreign investment regimes, our protection of critical infrastructure, difficult decisions that were made, such as the role of Huawei in our telecommunications networks. None of these were easy decisions to make, but they were necessary. We made them. They were demonstrably in the national interest. They were, of course, always going to cause some frictions in the relationship and we saw that. And then the real deterioration by virtue of the fact that China’s response was to apply attempted economic coercion, frankly, in terms of the types of unfair, unwarranted and unjustified trade sanctions applied against Australian industry and businesses which were of deep concern and created a heightening in relation to the tensions and the dialogue at the time. I’m pleased to see that there is some settling of that. And importantly, as I said, the ending of this counter-productive ban on ministerial level of engagement which now enables Australia and China to at least sit down face-to-face and try to work through resolving these issues.


Tom Connell: But there’s also been a paring back of rhetoric from Labor, and sure, they’ve benefited from being able to refresh things. But out of all the things the Coalition did, I mean, thinking back to some of the strong rhetoric, even Scott Morrison’s very instant and angry reaction to a tweet from not even someone within the Chinese government, but essentially someone fairly low down, I’m trying to recall exactly what within the embassy, but it had an offensive post relating to Australian diggers and I’m sure a lot of people were offended, but it was a prime ministerial press conference that strong reaction so far and needing to call that out publicly. Should we- are you rethinking how some of that was done for next time you’re in office?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Tom, that was a Chinese Government sanctioned tweet or indeed piece of propaganda against Australia. And it was offensive and outrageous that they did so. And it was right to call that out. We should remember that this also coincided with a period internationally of the so-called wolf warrior diplomacy being undertaken. That the more aggressive stance of Chinese diplomats was not just something we saw in Australia, but in many other parts of the world. There seems to be a change in tone at present from China in terms of their international engagement. We saw that with President Xi and President Biden’s meeting in Bali recently. That’s all very welcome. Of course, critically, though, the strategic challenges of our time have not changed. The government has acknowledged that they need to continue to acknowledge that and make sure that in their dialogue with Australia, they seek to achieve outcomes in our national interest that get the cessation of those trade sanctions, the release of Australians and other breakthroughs. But they don’t do it in any way that undermines our national interests or compromises those positions. And to date there have been very clear and solid in the maintenance of the types of policy settings the Coalition put in place.


Tom Connell:  Let’s turn to what’s happening in Pacific. You’ve been on this bipartisan trip there alongside some Labor counterparts as well. What do you make of the debate within the Coalition, I guess. Because you’ve said on increasing emissions targets that that helped that Australia. The Australian Government has a higher target now and the Coalition could have done that because you were overachieving. Is it fair to say you were arguing for that while in government?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Tom, I don’t want to go back over internal discussions in government, but I think it’s a statement of logic that having put Australia in a position, as the Coalition government did, to not just achieve our emissions reduction commitments internationally but to exceed them. It would have been pretty straightforward to increase those targets and the level of ambition, and that would have earned kudos probably in the domestic electorate as well as in terms of a number of international relations.


Tom Connell: So that would be a statement of logic. You would have been arguing for that then?


Simon Birmingham: Well, as I say, I’m not going to go back over the internal discussions we had in government-


Tom Connell: Well we don’t need every minute. But is it fair to say that was your view then?


Simon Birmingham: That’s well, indeed I’ve always been a supporter in terms of us pursuing ambition in relation to climate change. The process to achieve the net zero target was one that I know Scott Morrison was very committed to. He worked hard to get it. Many other people within the Coalition worked hard to get it, but it was publicly a messy process and I think that was counterproductive to the outcome in terms of how it was received as well. So, these are things we’ve got to be mindful of moving forward. We’ve got to ensure that we have strong and credible positions on climate change, both for what we take to the Australian electorate, but also importantly as a function of listening to and working with our Pacific neighbours to.


Tom Connell: The election review will see the official version published soon, but we know plenty about it. I’m sure you know a bit more than me as well. It talks about a problem with your party representing modern Australia. How has your party modernised or sought to modernise since the election?


Simon Birmingham: Tom, the undertaking in the review is part of the process of ensuring that we get recommendations to act on, to be able to better reflect the diversity of modern Australia in our membership, in our engagement, ultimately in our candidates and members of Parliament. That’s critical for us to do and to pursue those efforts. And it’s going to require each of our state and territory divisions to look carefully at their pre-selection processes and how they achieve that outcome. Of course, in a policy sense, Peter Dutton is already challenging us through the shadow cabinet processes to be working through ideas that give us a point of difference from the government, advance our liberal principles and values in ways that can continue to grow the economy, underpin prosperity-


Tom Connell: Sorry to jump in. We’ve got about 20 seconds left, but Peter Dutton, is he the sort of leader that modern Australia will embrace?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Peter has a real understanding of the diversity of experiences across modern Australia. He is in touch in terms of a range of different ways. His wife is a successful small businesswoman in her own right. I know from dealing with Peter that he has respect for people’s different circumstances they find themselves, different family units that exist across the country. I think he is a leader who also is determined to ensure we have a strong policy agenda at the next election and that’s to his credit.


Tom Connell: Okay. We appreciate your time today and indeed through the year. Enjoy your break. Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks Tom, my pleasure. You too.