Topics: Cheng Lei media incident; Australia-China relationship; net zero policy

1200 AEST
18 June 2024


Kieran Gilbert:  With regard to Cheng Lei, my colleague, Andrew Clennell reporting that the Opposition did raise it with the Chinese Premier. Can you confirm that you did express your concerns there?


Simon Birmingham: Kieran, I think as anybody would expect Peter Dutton and I, in those sorts of meetings, say what we would say in public, also reinforce those messages in private. And we have been very clear that what happened yesterday was unacceptable. It shouldn’t have occurred. Ultimately, this visit is taking place in Australia, this was occurring in our Parliament House, and in our country there is respect for the freedom of media, Cheng Lei is a respected Australian journalist, she should have been treated as such and the behaviour was inappropriate.


Kieran Gilbert:  The former Home Affairs Secretary, Mike Pezzullo, says that those Australian officials who tried to intervene, that they should get a public service medal on the spot. Do you agree? I thought they acted very…well with great judgment to try and defuse that situation.


Simon Birmingham: I do think those officials deserve credit for handling the situation as best as they could in the circumstances. It’s a marked contrast to how the Prime Minister conducted himself if I can say. Now the awarding of Australian honours I’ll leave to others, but I think credit to the officials who sought in a calm way, but in a firm way as well, to ensure that Australian standards were upheld. Discredit to Prime Minister Albanese and his office for somehow fudging that he didn’t know or not having him properly briefed or whatever mess was occurring in the Prime Minister’s office ahead of the time he came out some two hours later and was incapable of being clear about this. And ultimately, I do hope that Chinese officials can reflect upon the fact that this was very counterproductive. Ultimately, we’re now having conversations about this sort of conduct, rather than conversations about the positive advances that can be made and have been made from a visit like this; the difficult issues that have been addressed and hopefully progress that can be made on them and this is where we should all want the focus to be and it’s disappointing that this conduct by Chinese officials that shouldn’t have occurred has detracted otherwise from a visit that is important and does provide opportunity for our two countries to make the type of progress we would all wish. And in relation to the meeting that Mr Dutton and I had yesterday with Premier Li, it was a positive meeting, dealt with some very difficult issues as people would expect, put our concerns frankly and firmly on the table, but also expressed positive aspirations in a mutual way between both sides about how we wish to see the relationship between Australia and China evolve in the years ahead.


Kieran Gilbert: Do you do you think that that has seen a reset now for the Coalition when it comes to China? We’ve seen Australia have its reset, has the Coalition done it now?


Simon Birmingham: I think we have had a series of important meetings, we’ve met with a visiting Chinese party minister, we’ve met with the Foreign Minister, we’ve now met with Premier Li and these have all been very welcome and I do thank the Chinese officials for the opportunity of those engagements and discussions. And yes, they demonstrate that we certainly are committed to having as positive a relationship as possible, but we don’t do so with any type of lack of clarity about the strategic challenges faced in the world. We would wish to see China play a positive role in relation to trying to stop those who initiate war or conflict like Russia or provoke terrorist attacks like Iran. We’d wish to see China play a more responsible role in the way its military conducts itself in our region and show respect for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; the territorial and sovereignty rights of countries like the Philippines. We of course don’t wish to see cyber-attacks or foreign interference and we wish to see respect and upholding of the trade agreements between our countries and have expressed a particular concern and wishes to see real compassion shown to an Australian like Dr. Yang Hengjun and wish to see him given the medical treatment and opportunity to ultimately be reunited with his family and urge them to show that compassion and consideration there.


Kieran Gilbert: Now on another matter, I want to ask you, comments made by the Nationals Leader in terms of large-scale renewables – he has said over the last 24 hours various comments but including – we would like to look for whatever option we can so we don’t have to pursue large scale renewables – full stop. Do you agree with them?


Simon Birmingham: Kieran my view is that to achieve net zero by 2050, and to do so in accordance with the Paris Agreement, to take the steps necessary, it’s important that we take, and that Australia takes, a technology-neutral approach. That is why we’ve been having the serious and hard discussions about nuclear energy, and these are hard discussions. But clearly renewables, including large-scale renewables, are part of a technology neutral approach and projects should be judged on the way in which they contribute to the lowest possible end user price; to reliability and of course each individual project to the social licence within the communities that it’s going to be built in. They’re really the key criteria that need to be assessed to make sure that…


Kieran Gilbert:  So is there a place for large scale renewables?


Simon Birmingham: There is absolutely a place for large-scale renewables as part of a technology-neutral approach in Australia. It’s an important part of the mix that will help us to reduce our emissions over time. And we’ve then got to be clear that there will be difficult discussions and decisions on that journey to net zero. We’ve been having them in relation to nuclear energy. The Albanese Government has stuck its head in the sand in relation to the role that nuclear energy is playing in essentially the energy transition or planned energy transition of every other G20 country except Australia. We’re willing to have this difficult discussion. We’ve got to realise that it will be a difficult one in a whole range of spheres – those criteria – lowest end user cost which means you’re considering the transmission implications and all of the other factors that are important, of course the reliability equation which is why nuclear is so important to ensure we have an industrial-base footprint in the future. And those social licence aspects which matter for any and all of the different energy generation sources and transmission projects you’re talking about.


Kieran Gilbert: Yeah, indeed. Well, Simon Birmingham thanks for your time. Your Leader, Peter Dutton, is currently speaking on these issues as well let’s have a listen in.