Topics: China; AUKUS; The Voice; Inflation; Intergenerational Report

0815 AEST
Sunday, 20 August 2023


Andrew Clennell: Well joining me now live from Adelaide is the Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham thanks for your time. I might ask you first for a reaction to these Chinese military exercises that have taken place over the weekend around Taiwan. They seem to be a reaction to a visit by the Taiwanese Vice President to the US; your reaction please.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Andrew, it’s good to be with you. We would urge China to show restraint and respect in relation to its engagement in any military exercises around Taiwan. They of course are of concern when we see heightened levels of activity because those types of heightened levels of activity just increase the risk and the potential for there to be some element of accident and some element of activity that causes an escalation, an unnecessary escalation, and that is a risk that none of us wish to see. That’s why we would urge and we would expect the Australian Government to urge restraint from China. But of course their increased militarisation; the build-up of their military, the activities we’ve seen across the South China Sea and elsewhere are all fundamental reasons why the defence of Australia and our engagement with the region continues to be so critical.


Andrew Clennell: We had the AUKUS debate at the Labor conference, which you and Peter Dutton said showed the division in Labor on national security and defence, but ultimately the PM had a win there didn’t he?


Simon Birmingham: Well ultimately the Government managed to continue to stand by a policy that is integral to Australia’s defence and national security future and that’s as it should be. But what the divisions demonstrated first and foremost was that Labor could never have initiated AUKUS. Anybody who thinks that a Labor government could have done as the Liberal-National led government did and initiate the AUKUS pact is dreaming because clearly the deep divisions would have seen them think; this is impossible for us to do and to keep the country or our party, in that case, united. Of course, they came on board after the Coalition Government initiated. Now we want to see bipartisanship; we want to see the strength of delivery. But there are some real tests for Labor in terms of demonstrating they can make the hard decisions for the delivery of AUKUS over the next few years. Just ahead of this national conference, we saw them walk away from a site for a low-level radioactive waste facility in Australia and take the country right back to square one in a search for a site that has gone on for decades. Now they’re going to need to demonstrate and do so very quickly that they can make the hard decisions around low-level radioactive waste for anybody to have confidence that they can make the even harder decisions around management and approach in relation to nuclear powered submarines in the future.


Andrew Clennell: You made comments recently that indicated you didn’t think Anthony Albanese should visit China until Cheng Lei is released. Do you still believe that?


Simon Birmingham: The comments I made were that the Government needs to have real confidence that meaningful progress continues to be made in our areas of concern with China. It’s for the Government to make sure they navigate and have confidence and to explain how that confidence exists. So real progress means the continued elimination of the unfair punitive, attempted coercion in an economic sense against Australia; removal of the tariffs on Australian wine and lifting of the other trade restrictions that are in place. But also progress in terms of the treatment of Cheng Lei, Dr Yang Hengjun as well, making sure that in relation to those cases of detained Australians we are seeing greater transparency, real progress in terms of ultimately their release. Now, clearly I hope that the Prime Minister at the G20 meeting will be able to put some of these things directly to President Xi Jinping and in putting them directly to him advance Australia’s national interest in terms of the outcomes we want to see and that may open the door to facilitate a visit. But we do need to see that type of further progress I think before the higher status and ceremony attached to a Prime Ministerial visit is entertained.


Andrew Clennell: This Government’s had more luck with China than the Morison Government though do you concede Scott Morrison was a bit too bullish and clumsy in his language and the way he approached China?


Simon Birmingham: I’ve always tried to make sure I take a calm and focused approach in the language I use. I did that as Trade Minister, as Finance Minister, I do that as Shadow Foreign Minister. But I also note that we faced some incredibly challenging times during the previous government in relation to China. We faced the type of increased military build-up; we faced the challenges in relation to the erosion of Hong Kong; we faced a very belligerent attitude that China was applying in relation to the rest of the world and we had to act and we acted in things and did things that were in Australia’s national interest; strengthen foreign transparency laws; protection of our democratic institutions; strengthening foreign interference legislation and foreign investment laws. Those types of changes we made, including direct decisions such as restrictions on participation in our communications network affecting Chinese carriers like Huawei, were not popular in Beijing. We knew they would not be popular in Beijing, but they were done in Australia’s national interest. And Australia should actually hold our head high about the fact that this country has withstood the attempts at economic coercion from China. The fact that China, in engaging in its wolf-warrior diplomacy then pursued very aggressive acts of economic coercion against Australia, but our policy positions as a nation have not changed and that is something we should take pride in as a country; that is something that demonstrates to the rest of the world, the resilience of Australia, but also the fact that all nations should act to protect their sovereignty to safeguard their interests, and in doing so have confidence that they can withstand these types of pressures and they’ll have the support of other nations as we have had, whilst we withstood those types of pressures.


Andrew Clennell: On The Voice, the PM says there really isn’t much of a difference between him and the Opposition. You want constitutional recognition and a voice he says, just not together. What do you say to that?


Simon Birmingham: There is a difference and Peter Dutton as has clearly outlined that in relation to the building of a model of local and regional voices across the country and doing it through legislative means that can provide if you like, proof of concept to the Australian people. Can build up confidence in it, can ensure that we actually see whether this approach, this model, makes in the long run a meaningful difference to addressing Indigenous disadvantage across Australia. And now, I’ve said for a long time that I didn’t want to see a referendum put that will fail. Sadly, this Government appears to have mismanaged the process in a way where this referendum looks likely to fail and I think that is that is a sad occasion for the country. I wish we hadn’t been put here; I wish there had been an approach in terms of the way the Government built the referendum question and the referendum proposal where they had been able to achieve far greater and broader support, most importantly also to achieve far greater confidence across Australians about the details –  about the model – with which I find myself continually surprised as I engage with Australians day to day, just how many people seem to have turned against the proposal of the Government because of the failure to seemingly engage in a detailed and open way throughout this and the failure to be willing to compromise particularly when key concerns around the wording such as the inclusion of executive government, were put by some of the leading proponents of The Voice.. …


Andrew Clennell: …Mr. Birmingham nearly out of time –  a couple of quick things. The PM couldn’t name the petrol price there, he said last time he filled up it was $1.80. It’s over $2 in most places. What do you make of that and is there anything the Government can do on the petrol price?


Simon Birmingham: The Government needs to be addressing inflation over all and when it handed down the budget earlier this year, many economists called it a budget that was expansionary, inflationary, and making a difficult problem worse. Australians who are feeling real hip pocket pain at present, they want a government that is serious about addressing inflation, not a government that adds to the problem and makes it worse than would otherwise be the case. And that’s where this Government has got to show real spending restraint and it has got to stop doing things that make matters worse, including the type of industrial relations agenda it’s taking forward, which is one that is only going to further hurt productivity in the Australian workplace. And by hurting that productivity, you’re going to make costs worse right across the country and drive up costs for business which is only going to further add to inflation and further weaken our economic position and in a week where we saw around 20,000 full time jobs lost out of the Australian economy these types of industrial relations reforms Labor is proposing will drive down employment and make the jobs market weaker too.


Andrew Clennell: Finally, the intergenerational report to be released by the Treasurer this week shows blowouts in cost going forward to the NDIS, aged care and health and challenges for productivity. No doubt they’ll say you were in power nine years, in government, didn’t do enough about it. What do you say to that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, here’s a contrast. When we were trying to present options that might manage to ensure the NDIS was sustainable for the future – delivered the care it needed – but also brought down the type of cost pressures we were seeing in the budget, Labor played politics with it and made clear they would oppose the types of changes that we were putting forward. Peter Dutton on the other hand, has been clear in his two budget reply speeches now, that if the Government wants to bring forward sensible measures to ensure the sustainability of the NDIS or the sustainability of aged care spending, we are up for working with the Government because we want to be constructive in these areas. We’ve announced positive policies to help more senior Australians work to ensure we grow the labour force and the labour market in that regard. But we’ve also been clear, we will be positive about working with the Government to address these cost pressures in the budget. The ball is in their court to actually come forward with the proposals they’re willing to bring forward that we can work with them on to actually help ensure the budget is more sustainable in the future. We’re willing to put the national interest first, but the Government’s got to lead and govern that’s what they are elected to do and right now we’re looking to see those policies to address it, not just statements that highlight the problem.


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


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Andrew. My pleasure.