Topics: Australia-China relationship; Pacific Islands Forum; AUKUS; COVID relief payments;
Peter Stefanovic: Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham is live for us. Minister, good morning to you. So we mentioned at the top of the show that Anthony Albanese has been this whirlwind global tour since he won the election. He since mended fences with Emmanuel Macron, Penny Wong and Richard Marles have met their counterparts in China. Is the new Labor Government just better at foreign diplomacy than your government was?
Simon Birmingham: Well no, Pete. These are the early days for a new government. It’s perfectly natural and normal that other partners around the world would want to meet with the new government and want to establish relations with them. And that is indeed what the new government should be doing as well, seeking to establish those relations. They haven’t hit the stage yet where they have to make difficult decisions. We as a government had to make some of those difficult decisions, decisions such as the one to cease production of diesel powered submarines for the future and move to the nuclear powered submarines. Now, we did that thinking decades ahead in terms of what Australia needed and what would be in the national interest. We knew that it would cause pain with a country like France in terms of the short term relations because of the loss of a commercial contract. But we took the decision because it was the right one looking ahead to the long term. The new government will face its own difficult decisions in time to come, but right now it’s correct that they get out there, seek to establish those relations and take the opportunity that is presented by it.
Peter Stefanovic: Has our has our relationship with China at least improved since Anthony Albanese was elected?
Simon Birmingham: We’ll see, Pete. The test of meetings is not just in the having of a meeting, but of course in the outcomes of meetings. And so the test here is over time, whether we do see an improvement in relation to the removal of trade sanctions, both the direct trade sanctions like tariffs on Australian barley and wine, but also the indirect trade sanctions that are being applied to our forestry industry, our resources industry, our live seafood industry, a range of sectors facing bugbears and barriers at the border. It will be a test as to the treatment of individual Australian citizens who have been unfairly detained, charged in ways where we need to ensure that they see justice, transparent justice occur and of course the test in relation to regional security in these matters. So China made the decision previously that they were unwilling to have ministerial level meetings with the democratically elected government of Australia, and that was counterproductive in terms of the relationship for China to take that approach. But that was their decision. Now they have resumed those meetings. That’s welcome and it’s a positive step. But the ultimate test will be whether it actually achieve our progress in relation to China’s unfair actions against Australia.
Peter Stefanovic: Well, Penny Wong called that meeting with Wang Yi an important first step in a long road to war. Can China be trusted?
Simon Birmingham: Pete, we have to engage in good faith, always as a nation. And on this score, I’m sure and trust that the government will engage in good faith with China. China, we ought to expect engage in good faith in return. It was not good faith for China to apply the types of trade sanctions I was talking about before, which are clearly in breach of both the letter and intent of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. And that’s why we should expect those sorts of sanctions to be lifted and clearly lifted. I was very concerned to see the new Trade Minister, Don Farrell, talking about the possibility of compromise with China over these matters. There’s no room for compromise. We shouldn’t be shoving one Australian industry under a bus to try to get some movement on another. We have clear trade arrangements with China through that bilateral FTA. As well now also through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with ASEAN nations as a pillar for China and other nations associated with that. And we should be expecting, as I said, China to honour the letter, the spirit and intent of these agreements, as Australia does in relation to the business, to business relations and people, to people relations that they foster between our two countries. It’s always be very clear here. The problem is not between Chinese people and Australian people or Chinese businesses and Australian businesses. There have been challenges from government to government and there will continue to be disagreements from government to government. But both nations should uphold the spirit of these sorts of agreements that enable our peoples and our businesses to get on successfully.
Peter Stefanovic: Alright, well those comments from Don Farrell came after Hugh White suggested that that may well have to be the case because nothing is going to stop China’s ambition or its power long term. So can any concessions be made big or small, that could in one sense placate China and in another sense not put any of our sovereignty at risk?
Simon Birmingham: We should always look for ways to work constructively with partners, including with China. And so if there are other areas for potential good constructive engagement in dialogue, then Australia should seek to pursue those. But we do need to stand firm in our defence of the international rules based order of international law. Our expectation in that regard that areas such as the South China Sea remain open, important trade routes for the movement of ships and navigation and overflight to be able to occur. These are critical matters, looking very much ahead to the long term relation to how our region functions in a way where the sovereignty and independence of all countries is respected.
Peter Stefanovic: Okay, what about short term? What if Xi Jinping convinced Vladimir Putin to end the war in Ukraine? Would that be a game changer in the world’s dealings with China, at least in the short term?
Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, Pete, it would be. And China’s muted response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, war on Ukraine has been a shameful thing to see. We would wish to see China take a stronger response in that regard. We’ve seen a number of nations. One that comes to mind, for example, is Cambodia, who took a very strong position in support of the United Nations resolution that demonstrated countries across our region making sure their voices were heard when it counted. And I would encourage all others to do likewise. But what the world would no doubt love to see in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is for China to show leadership. It would be an enormous opportunity for China to do so and one that I’m sure everyone would encourage them to do. Okay.
Peter Stefanovic: On the Pacific Island Forum this week, we just had Pat Conroy on the program. Does Anthony Albanese need to be there?
Simon Birmingham: Yes, he should be there, he should seek the opportunity provided by this early Pacific Island Forum meeting to establish the type of personal relations and good relations with Pacific Island leaders. That Scott Morrison also prioritised. He made sure very early on in his prime ministership, the Pacific Islands Forum and the individual member states were priorities of his. We pursued a policy of the Pacific step up that saw us expand Australia’s diplomatic presence across the Pacific Island nations to be the only country to have diplomatic missions in each and every nation opening an additional six of them. We established a $700 million climate financing package to support the Pacific and indeed are the largest regional development assistance partner in the Pacific. So there’s a strong foundation for Anthony Albanese to work off of in that regard. And at this time with security and other factors and the economic recovery for the Pacific from the COVID-19 shocks of such significance, this is absolutely important meeting for him to be there and to establish those relations and to make sure that Pacific principles are upheld in relation to respect and sovereignty of all of those partner nations.
Peter Stefanovic: Yet despite those points that you made, many people regard the Solomon Islands and Sogavare turn to China as a failure on your government’s part. The developments over the weekend suggest that he wants to not only fund but influence his national broadcaster now. This is on top of China moving into the Solomon Islands eventually, and he wants to delay his election as well. Do you have any concerns about Sogavare, at least on the face of it, turning into some kind of dictatorship?
Simon Birmingham: I think there are a few points I’d make in response to to all of that. The first is, is that it would be naive for any Australian government or leader to expect that Australia will always see outcomes in independent sovereign nations in our region that are exactly as we would wish them to be. So if we are to respect the sovereignty of independent nations and operate as a partner with those nations, then at times they will do things that we don’t agree with and we have to understand that that will be the case. I welcome the fact that Prime Minister Sogavare gave Penny Wong the same assurances that he gave our government previously in relation to not having military bases established in the Solomon Islands. It’s a very important assurance and it’s one I hope and trust, he repeats to other Pacific Island leaders when the PIF meets next week. I think there are important principles that we should always encourage our fellow partners in the Pacific Islands to uphold and democratic principles are clearly some of those. And so I would urge any nation to stick by their electoral rules and to ensure that the democracies they have that provide the people of the Pacific with an opportunity to influence the shape of their government and the direction of their governments ought to be upheld.
Peter Stefanovic: Minister, the architects of AUKUS are disappearing. Morrison is gone. Johnson is gone. Biden likely to be gone in two years. Is the future of AUKUS in danger of falling apart?
Simon Birmingham: No. The relations between Australia, the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States or the United Kingdom in the United States are such that they always withstand changes of leader, changes of government. We should be confident that AUKUS, which was a big structural shift in relation to enhancing the relationship in ways where we share the most detailed and intimate and sensitive of defence and military technologies will be advanced upon. It enjoys bipartisan support across all three nations. It is crucial to ensure that we do as countries, keep working on that relationship, not just in the nuclear powered submarines I spoke of before, but in other areas of missile technology, of artificial intelligence, and the things that were envisaged as part of AUKUS and which will help to ensure that Australia is as well-placed as possible to preserve peace and prosperity in our region by having access to leading technologies and ensures that the United States and the United Kingdom can continue to play the regional and world leading roles that they have played to.
Peter Stefanovic: Okay, just a few matters closer to home now. Minister, before we close things up, Labor has axed the pandemic leave disaster payment, but some groups are calling for that to be reinstated as COVID case numbers continue to rise again. Would you support any form of a modified version of that payment?
Simon Birmingham: Pete, the first point I’d make is it is important that extraordinary COVID financial measures come to an end. As a government, we put in place these measures to help get Australia through COVID. They worked effectively, but we also showed the resolve to bring them to an end such as JobKeeper, even when then political opponents, the Labor Party and opposition were calling for JobKeeper to be extended. So I think it is important to respect that there are end dates for these types of measures. But we do see a situation at present where COVID cases are on the rise, where we have increasing concerns voiced by many public health experts. And so I urge the Government to make sure they are taking full advice of the public health professionals across the country, and that if there are measures that are necessary to ensure that our hospital systems aren’t overwhelmed by COVID cases or heard in that regard, then they should be looking to take those sorts of measures. They’re the ones now receiving that advice. They need to be transparent and open about what that advice is and what it means for payments like this.
Peter Stefanovic: Right. So, you may well be open to some form of payment.
Simon Birmingham: It would depend very much on on that type of public health advice and what is necessary. We shouldn’t be spending money that doesn’t need to be spent. We do need to bring payments and extraordinary measures to an end to make sure that the budget continues on the trajectory that the Coalition government had it on, which was one of significantly declining deficits. But if there are measures necessary in relation to public health and public hospitals and the Government needs to be transparent about the advice it’s receiving and how it is acting in response to that advice.
Peter Stefanovic: Otherwise, do you accept that people will just go to work sick, they’ll go to work with COVID?
Simon Birmingham: The reason we brought these types of payments in in the first place was was to provide the guarantee that people could isolate in accordance with public health advice and not be financially disadvantaged themselves of having to isolate. That remains a pretty solid principle if the advice is to isolate and we need people to do so. Then what is the financial support? If I think back to the time when these payments were constructed, there was a lot of noise from the Labor Party, from the union movement and their other allies about the need for such support. I’d expect similar principles to be at play if the public health advice demands it.
Peter Stefanovic: Okay. That’s the shadow foreign minister. Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time this morning. Talk to you soon.