Topics: Prime Minister declines invitation to NATO; China reviews Australian barley sanctions; the Voice to Parliament;  

02:05PM AEDT
Wednesday, 12 April 2023


Kieran Gilbert: Joining me live now is the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham. Thanks for your time. You were critical of the Prime Minister earlier in the day when it appeared he wouldn’t be attending. Do you- are you encouraged now by this news that he could still well be taking up that invitation from NATO to attend the talks in Lithuania?


Simon Birmingham: Well, hello Kieran, it’s good to be with you. Look, the question for Anthony Albanese should be a really quick and easy one in terms of responding to an invitation to attend the NATO Leaders’ Summit, and that is it should be a quick and fast ‘yes’ from the Prime Minister. There shouldn’t need to be any hesitation and because of two key reasons, the failure to attend if he did not go, would both send the wrong signal and be a missed opportunity. What do I mean by that? Well, firstly, in terms of the wrong signal, it would suggest that somehow there was a level of fatigue setting in relation to Australia’s support for the defence of Ukraine against Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion. We should be going to the NATO Leaders’ Summit represented by our Prime Minister, armed with a new and comprehensive package of support for Ukraine across military, humanitarian and other assistance to make sure that we continue to defend the rules-based order where it is under direct threat at present by Russia through their invasion of Ukraine.

And the missed opportunity is perhaps an even more significant one for the long term, in that NATO has clearly sent a signal through its invitation to the AP4 countries Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea that they want to embed an ongoing form of dialogue into our region. And that’s such a huge opportunity for us to ensure that particularly European democracies have a security dialogue with Australia and the countries of our region that enhance their focus on, awareness of and understanding of the strategic challenges in our region. And we should be seeking to embed that as part of NATO’s routine of business. And that means the Prime Minister should absolutely be there this year to secure that for the future.


Kieran Gilbert: So he could well still be there. As I said, no, no decision made is the advice that I’ve been given today. Now, on the China thaw, the Albanese Government pausing the World Trade Organisation action, is that the right move if China does remove those tariffs as looks likely now?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s an important part of this, and it’s important to understand the “what’s in it for China part of that equation?” The World Trade Organisation claim that Australia made to make sure we had an international legal ruling through the WTO that China’s tariffs on Australian barley were invalid and should never have been imposed in the first place is one that the previous government initiated and we provided additional funding to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to undertake that action and to ensure that it was an effective claim through the WTO and it is just about to be handed down. So, it provides significant leverage at this point in time for China, who probably don’t want to see that ruling made. Now, of course, we’d always rather see the quick removal of these tariffs that should have never been put in place in the first place and were an attempt of economic coercion by China. And the government absolutely should use what leverage it has to have the tariffs on barley and on wine removed against Australia so that China is then upholding the free trade agreements that it’s entered into with us in spirit and in letter.


Kieran Gilbert: So obviously they’re the areas in your responsibility right now as Shadow Foreign Minister. But now let’s move to the Voice as of course, you’re the leading moderate in the opposition. Julian Leeser, quit the front bench. Will you follow suit and quit the front bench over the Voice?


Simon Birmingham: That’s not my intention, Kieran. Julian has a long and deep history on this issue, and I have nothing but respect for Julian and the highest of regard for the knowledge and thought that he brings to the debate of this issue. I will continue to listen very carefully to what he has to say and to how he engages on the topic. And I would urge the Prime Minister and the Government to do likewise. Julian is calling for there to be changes to the way this is put to the Australian people. He brings enormous integrity to those calls and the Government would do well if it wants to maximise the chances of success of this referendum to actually listen carefully to what Julian is saying and to engage in the type of changes that he is advocating for.


Kieran Gilbert: Will you campaign for a no vote?


Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s equally not my intention. My intention is to respect the Australian people who will go about this referendum, applying their judgement to the issues that are before them at the time. I recognise that there are different opinions in relation to the arguments for the Voice and against and then particularly different opinions in relation to the detail and I share many of those concerns around aspects of the detail. The key proposition here is how much needs to be put in the constitution versus ensuring you achieve the aim of recognition, which is something that I’ve always supported and that the Coalition continues to support. There is then the proposition to achieve recognition via a Voice. But if you go too far as the Government has in seeking to define elements of that Voice through the Constitution, then you create additional constitutional risks highlighted now by Julian Leeser, by Greg Craven and others, notwithstanding their support for the overall proposition.

So that’s where I think listening is crucial if we’re to achieve the best possible outcome from this, possible reconsideration across the political divide. In terms of the challenges here, the Government needs to take stock of a significant personal decision that somebody with such a long commitment to this topic, as Julian Leeser has made, and think long and hard about what he is advocating in terms of a better pathway to achieve this.


Kieran Gilbert: So you won’t campaign for a no vote. Can I ask you at a personal level, will you vote? Would you vote yes in the ballot box when it comes to that referendum?


Simon Birmingham: Well, every Australian is going to enjoy the normal secret ballot of this type of process. I’m hoping that there is still room for some type of consensus to be salvaged out of this situation. I’ve said for a long time that I don’t wish to see an unsuccessful referendum put forward to the Australian people. There are options available to the Government in terms of what the Coalition has said about bipartisan support for constitutional recognition, which could be a unifying moment for the nation. There is the option for the Government of reconsidering the wording of its proposed constitutional amendments consistent with what Julian Leeser has indicated. All of those factors are to play out between now and when the Constitution alteration bill ultimately passes through the parliament. And so I’ll be watching and considering all of those factors carefully through that timeframe.


Kieran Gilbert: Another factor would be that and I know that you would have considered this, but Julian Leeser, quitting does give a level of cover, encouragement maybe to Liberal voters who might be inclined to support the Voice. So are you doing the same would have a similar impact to an extent. Do you see that as part of your consideration as well as to whether or not you say, yes, you are going to vote in favour or not?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Julian’s history and engagement on this issue is something that runs over a far longer and deeper horizon and trajectory than mine has been. So, I think there are some points of difference there. And it’s important to appreciate that just because people may have a different position, as discussions go through a shadow cabinet or party room process does not mean that they then step aside if their position does not prevail. If that were the case, there’d be many, many instances where people would be stepping aside for one reason or another. I mean, I could think back to when we took the decision to secure net zero by 2050 as a Coalition policy commitment. There may have been some who may have had cause to step aside at that point, who didn’t. So, look, I think you have to realise you have these debates-.


Kieran Gilbert: So, you didn’t consider stepping aside because of that, because you have been, for want of a better phrase, you’ve been a team player for a long period of time.


Simon Birmingham: Well, we did take that position and I’m very happy. We did take that position of net zero by 2050, and I was very happy that we did so.


Kieran Gilbert: But in this context of the Voice you haven’t considered standing aside.


Simon Birmingham: Look, I haven’t considered doing so at this stage. Kieran. As I say, Julian’s position on this is, is one of far deeper historical engagement in the topic and in the development of it from its very infancy as he has outlined. Julian is somebody who I’ve valued being able to talk to carefully and closely about the issue, and I’ve got no doubt that I will continue to do so. And to take his counsel into consideration in in my own approach. I still hope that perhaps something could be salvaged. And I outlined two pathways there for the government, either Peter Dutton’s offer for full bipartisan support for constitutional recognition, or at least for the Government to consider Julian Leeser’s pathway, which is for them to narrow the scope of the constitutional changes they are proposing to still provide for a Voice, but to make a profound difference in approach than the one currently underway from the Government, which I think could be a game changer for many Australians.


Kieran Gilbert: Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham, Thanks for your time. I appreciate it.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Kieran. My pleasure.