Topics:  Sydney attacks; Online reform; Defence spending; Justice Lee verdict;

08:30AM AEST
21 April 2024


Andrew Clennell: Well, joining me live is Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister and Opposition Senate Leader, Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time. I might start with the Bondi and Wakeley attacks during the week. Has the government and the Prime Minister responded in the manner that they should to these attacks?


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Andrew. It’s good to be with you. Well, the attacks of the last week shook Australia to the core and particularly for Sydneysiders. But so many, of course, are confronted by the evil that occurred in terms of the killing of so many innocent people at Bondi Junction shopping centre, and then the terrible scenes that showed such social discord and disharmony in relation to the attack on Bishop Emmanuel. The government really needs to show greater strength of direction in response to these types of outcomes. None of us wish to see them politicised, but the reality is that action in terms of leadership around strengthening, where appropriate, of social media laws, action in terms of leadership, where appropriate in mental health policy making, action where appropriate in terms of looking at knife laws, security provisions, etc. these are all things where good, strong national leadership should come in the wake of such tragedies, and we would expect and wish to see that from the government.


Andrew Clennell: All right. So, would you like to see more money for mental health in the budget, for example?


Simon Birmingham: Well, greater funding for mental health is always welcome, but the policies need to be focused and that’s where the real priority needs to lie.


Andrew Clennell: So, what sort of change?


Simon Birmingham: We as a government put additional- Andrew, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in that space. So, I will let the experts and those who have the resources of government lead a debate in something as sensitive as mental health support and its intersection with the criminal justice system. But it is clear that that when you have an outcome, such as the tragic death of six innocent people at a shopping mall, something has gone terribly wrong in terms of the support that the murderer in that instance should have had and did not have.


Andrew Clennell: All right, well, I reported this morning the federal government hopes out of these incidents, it can get some support from the opposition for its misinformation bill, you just mentioned reforms around social media. Will you now support that bill?


Simon Birmingham: That all depends upon the content of the bill and how it is structured. Nobody wants to see a situation where the incitement to violence and the type of wave of information that created the riots against police that were so appalling to see outside of the church last week happen. So, being able to back in authorities to quickly, forcefully force social media companies to remove violent content. You think about that, the way these social media companies work, they are able to push into our phones and our devices so many different things based on the algorithms of how they operate. If they can do that so effectively, they must and should be able to take down violent content and inappropriate content much more effectively and their excuses against that-


Andrew Clennell: Well just on that. Is the misinformation bill adequate then or not? What’s your view?


Simon Birmingham: Well, what we don’t want is a situation where the government sets up some regulator that has little control over removing that type of violent content, but ends up sitting in judgement about whether or not what people say in a political debate that is part of the normal backwards and forwards of a democracy is true or not. So, that’s where there is a real sensitivity in terms of how this type of legislation is structured. Clearly, what the government initially outlined erred way too far in terms of restricting potentially normal political debate and putting a government regulator in charge of the truthfulness or otherwise of normal political debate. If the government can get the balance right, and listening to and heeding the wave of criticism that came around its initial draft from a whole range of different submitters and parties to it, and get that right with strong powers in relation to how social media companies are held to account. Well, then that would be a positive step forward. But we’ll have to see, in terms of the detail and the steps that the government takes as to whether they have got that right. We want to see effective controls on social media. We were the parties that took strong action to back news media. We were the parties that established the eSafety commissioner, we’re the parties that instigated forced takedown notices. None of these steps can be set and forget. It’s crucial that governments, in a world of constant technological change, update for these types of issues and update the laws as necessary. And that’s why we have strong, proud and proud track record of instigating tougher measures and trying to keep up with moving technology in this space. And we want to support the government where they do so, where it is effectively holding social media giants to account.


Andrew Clennell: All right. I wanted to move now to the government’s defence announcement. Your colleague Andrew Hastie called it weak. Do you agree with that assessment?


Simon Birmingham: Yes, it’s a weak and terribly opaque announcement. This is an investment strategy that leaves far more questions about where the cuts to defence are lying than it does answers about where the actual investments are going to occur. This is a government that has now outlined some $80 billion worth of cuts or delays to different defence investments and programs since it came to office. That has shuffled money around that without putting real priority on hard, critical investments in the short term. And again, in this announcement this week, we saw that big figures were used, but then all of them pushed beyond the forward estimates of the budget, beyond the immediate scrutiny of any information about how or where the government is truthfully going to invest.


Andrew Clennell: The government says that you should have started it all ten years ago, of course. The Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton, has already made it clear you will trump their spending promise at the next election. You’ll spend more than their projected 2.4% of GDP on defence. How much extra will you spend and what will you spend it on?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Andrew, let me firstly deal. I heard Murray Watt sort of making these claims about the biggest increase in investment the country’s ever seen under the Albanese Government. That’s just complete bunkum. Let’s recall that when the Abbott government was elected, Australia’s defence spending had sunk to its lowest level as a share of our economy since the 1930s, around 1.36% of GDP. And it was the decision of the Abbott government implemented by Tony, Malcolm and Scott, to restore and build that up to 2% of GDP. So, we oversaw the most significant increase in terms of Australia’s defence spending since the Second World War. We restored it to credible levels that made the AUKUS decision possible, that made investment in new defence capability possible, and that actually have given our defence forces a chance and to take some of the steps in restoring their capability and influence. But during that time, and it was very prescient to restore it at a period even before many of the tensions we’re dealing with today were apparent. And during that time, those tensions have become apparent, the need for more investment is clear. We will outline-


Andrew Clennell: What would it be on, what would it be on from your point of view? What would it be on? What should the extra spending be on?


Simon Birmingham: So, there are clear short-term needs. And you can see many of the defence experts highlighting those short-term needs in relation to how you prepare a country like Australia to fight in a new technological age, such as with drone-based warfare, and how we can both fight and defend against those types of new, lower cost but mass manufactured type weaponry. And they’re critical for us to consider in the mix. It’s also important that we look at how we get the most out of all of our immediate acquisitions and capability that we have. I’m deeply concerned to see an apparent billion dollar plus cut in the Collins Submarine Life of Type Extension program. The government needs to be clear about how it is. They have come to a conclusion that Collins Life of Type Extension can be done for around $1 billion or more, less than had been previously estimated. Does this mean they’ve abandoned any hope of putting Tomahawk missiles on the Collins and increasing its lethal capability? It’s one thing to extend the life of those submarines, but they’ve also been very genuine ambitions to improve the lethality and combat capability of those submarines, and that should firmly still be on the agenda, too.


Andrew Clennell: Simon Birmingham, you’ve written to the foreign minister asking for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to be listed as a terrorist organisation and for sanctions against Iran. What’s the effect of that? What sort of sanctions would you like to see?


Simon Birmingham: Iran is a rogue state and it should be treated as a rogue state, and Australia should be working in concert with the United States, EU and other democratic allies right around the world and all other partners who are willing to take steps in terms of isolating the Iranian economy as much as possible, targeting the Iranian leadership as much as possible, and particularly targeting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. And I give credit significantly to my colleague, Senator Claire Chandler, who led an inquiry more than a year ago now, which called for the IRGC to be listed as a terrorist organisation. The Coalition has been clear that we will support the government if they need to change Australia’s laws to enable that to happen. The United States has already taken such steps, and other countries should do so because the IRGC is a sponsor of terrorism. It does so through Hamas, through Hezbollah has been doing so through support for the Houthi rebels and creating massive disruption to trade and the global economy. And it persecutes and oppresses its own people, which we’ve seen through the murder of Iranian women and girls, as well as any other dissidents within Iran.


Andrew Clennell: I wanted to get your comment on this Justice Lee judgment during the week around Bruce Lehrmann and Brittany Higgins. He found that Brittany Higgins was raped. Is the $2.4 million payout to Miss Higgins from your old department Finance fair, do you think?


Simon Birmingham: I think there are, as is publicly known, requests for the National Anti-Corruption Commission to look at that. It’s a matter for the NACC to assess that, but I trust they will be vigilant in looking at how that decision was reached, the processes that were applied and in doing so, careful consideration then, of the terms of that settlement. It may also be a matter that the Auditor General could wish to take a look at in terms of the quantum that was reached and how that was determined. Without having been a party to all of the information provided and considered in those deliberations, including independent advice, I can’t give comment on the specific figure. But I do want to say, Andrew, that that I welcome the judgment as I do the statement overnight from Brittany Higgins. I think the judgment – there are two key things to be reflected upon there. The first, of course, is that it found a 24-year-old woman to have been raped and concerned for her welfare and for Brittany Higgins well-being, and how justice could and should have been served, should have been of paramount concern throughout all of this. Unfortunately, one of the second findings made was that claims of a political cover up were wrong. In fact, Justice Lee made clear that far from a political cover up, those accused of doing so actually sought to take the matter to the police, pushed to take the matter to the police. And we had a reverse perception created that that politicisation of the matter impeded the criminal prosecution that was sought. And so I think those who played a role in that politicisation need to reflect very carefully on the consequences of that role, which was that a rapist was not ultimately successfully prosecuted.


Andrew Clennell: You’re saying the accusations of political cover up contributed to him not being successfully prosecuted?


Simon Birmingham: That’s what Justice Lee said. If you look at his findings and his statement, he was very clear there was no political cover up and that the way in which this was politicised and the media and publications surrounding it – impeded ultimately, a successful prosecution. And that is a tragedy when you think about what should have occurred.


Andrew Clennell: Do you think this cost you at the election, either the election itself or the fact that Labor went a majority government, the accusations of political cover up?


Simon Birmingham: Andrew, look, I’ll let others judge what occurred at the election. I don’t want to add to the politicisation of this. I think Brittany Higgins, in her statement, is right to wish to see an opportunity for people to move on. I think those individuals and others who played a role in elevating the politics around this, the allegations of cover up should reflect on the consequences of those actions, as I said before. But to now go back and try to say that it did or didn’t hurt us politically. Well, commentators and others can make those assessments. We are now in Opposition under Peter, united, focussed on the future and keen to develop the policies for the future.


Andrew Clennell: Just briefly. No, no, just briefly, you speak about those who politicised that. Who are you referring to?


Simon Birmingham: Well, there are those within the media and there are those within the Parliament, and I think they all know who they are in terms of the way in which they pursued this in the Parliament, the types of questions that were presented and the way in which they were relentlessly presented, and the way in which they were equally relentlessly publicised through a range of different media commentaries, some of which was again the focus of that judgment.


Andrew Clennell: All right. Well, Katy Gallagher and the government say that payment to Miss Higgins was handled at arm’s length. As a former finance minister, would you agree? That’s usually how that sort of matter is handled.


Simon Birmingham: That is usually such, such a matter is handled and the process in terms of such a matter being signed off by the Attorney General would in, in terms of legal proceedings like that, be within the normal realms of process. But as I said before, in terms of the quantum and how that was determined, that may be a matter the Auditor General could look at just as much as the National Anti-Corruption Commission will come to its own conclusion around the findings and whether or not it warrants investigation within their remit and scope.


Andrew Clennell: Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time this morning.