Interview on ABC News, Afternoon Briefing, with Patricia Karvelas

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: The investigation involving Minister Angus Taylor, Westpac, trade with Indonesia.
26 November 2019

Patricia Karvelas:         Well the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham joins me now. There is some good news for you because you've managed to pass your free trade deal with Indonesia. But of course, events have unfolded since then, as you know. Why has the Prime Minister and your Government decided to stand by a Minister that is now under investigation by New South Wales Police?

Simon Birmingham:     Well Patricia, let's put the investigation clearly in context there. The Prime Minister, having had these matters raised purely at the start of Question Time, has come out of Question Time, has spoken to the Police Commissioner, has ascertained that apparently the only information there is the referral by the Federal Labor Opposition to the New South Wales Police. And the Prime Minister of course has indicated that, as you would expect, the Government will give full cooperation to their investigation. But we have the Minister, who has made clear his position for quite some period of time now in terms of where the information was sourced from, from the City of Sydney website. He's made his public statements. These matters really have been dealt with. Yes, the New South Wales Police, acting on a requires from the Federal Labor Party to look at this matter. We'll cooperate with that. But that should really be the end of the matter while we get on with governing the country.

Patricia Karvelas:         Well, you say that, Minister, but let's- there are ministerial standards here at play, and there is the integrity of the Parliament, the integrity of Cabinet ministers. When Arthur Sinodinos was the subject of an anti-corruption investigation he voluntarily stood down. That wasn't a police investigation, and yet he stood down. Why has Angus Taylor been treated by a different standard?

Simon Birmingham:     Look Patricia, I think the circumstances in terms of the information, the allegations, the evidence; quite different in terms of the …

Patricia Karvelas:         Are you suggesting that Arthur Sinodinos' case was more serious?

Simon Birmingham:     Look, I'll let others run a commentary in relation to …

Patricia Karvelas:         Well, no, it's a key question. Because he stood aside. Minister, he stood aside and this Minister is not standing aside.

Simon Birmingham:     Well, Patricia, if you want to draw analogies, it's not that long ago in your home
state that 21 members of the Victorian Labor Party in the Victorian Parliament were under police investigation, including six ministers. Now, I didn't hear Anthony Albanese or any other members of the Labor Party suggesting that those six ministers in the Victorian Labor Party should stand aside. That investigation was conducted by the Victorian Police. The matter has obviously been concluded and moved on with.

Patricia Karvelas:         With respect, this is a Minister of the Crown in a key portfolio. There are other precedents …

Simon Birmingham:     Those six ministers in Victoria didn't count – they're not important, aren't they?

Patricia Karvelas:         They probably should have stood down too. I am a member of the media, not the ALP, so I believe in integrity in all parliaments. Let's park that issues because you've got a live on right now. Mal Brough stood down in 2015 during a police investigation, why was the standard different for him?

Simon Birmingham:     Let's understand what this is, though. This is the Labor Party's federal Shadow Attorney-General making an allegation. That's the allegation …

Patricia Karvelas:         No, no, no. There was a letter of referral, and the police ...

Simon Birmingham:     From the Labor Party. From the Federal Opposition.

Patricia Karvelas:         … and the police opened up an investigation. They did not have to open up an investigation. They've made that decision.

Simon Birmingham:     And no doubt the federal Labor Party would have criticised them if they hadn't had a look at it. So, the police are responding to what, at present, so far as we're aware or I'm aware, is purely a referral from the federal Labor Party.

Patricia Karvelas:         Angus Taylor has repeatedly said it was all fine, you know, this information was obtained from the website. And it's quite clear from the City of Sydney that this information, this document, did not exist. Don't we deserve to know what happened here? Where did this document come from?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, Angus Taylor has answered that question in relation to it coming from the City of Sydney website.

Patricia Karvelas:         But he hasn't answered that question. No one can find it. It didn't exist on the City of Sydney website, according to the City of Sydney, who have investigated this.

Simon Birmingham:     Look, all I can point to there is the statement that has been made –  that that is where it was obtained from.

Patricia Karvelas:         Your Government will be judged by its standards, by the way that it deals with these issues of integrity. Do you feel comfortable standing by a Minister that is now under police investigation? Why not stand him aside while the investigation-

Simon Birmingham:     Governments are judged on all manner of things, Patricia. Ultimately, the Australian
people want us to get on with looking after their interests. Their interests, giving them the confidence to plan for the future, giving them the confidence that there will be jobs for them and for their children; giving them the confidence that the services they want will be available to them. And that is exactly what we as a Government are focused on. The Federal Opposition and the Labor Party can play all sorts of games on side issues, but our focus is about actually, in my case today, having passed through Parliament legislation for the Indonesian Free Trade Agreement. The Senate is now getting on with talking about how we can actually make sure that our construction industry works more effectively and reduces costs in the future so there can be more jobs, more building activity, without the type of union lawlessness that we've seen in the past-

Patricia Karvelas:         But with respect, Minister, I can tell you …

Simon Birmingham:     These are the things that mums and dads around the country care about.

Patricia Karvelas:         … I can tell you that as a political reporter of 20 years, those issues of yours will now get zero oxygen because this Minister is under a cloud. Why is the Government standing by a Minister where there will be sustained questioning and the police are investigating, when you want to talk about all those issues that you say matter to mums and dads? You're not going to get a chance to talk about them, are you?

Simon Birmingham:     And I can tell you, as a Senator of twelve and a half years and somebody engaged in politics for a long period of time, that people standing around their barbeques on the weekend, people sitting down at the dinner table tonight, are still talking about how it is that they pay their electricity bills. And what we've done and Minister Taylor has done there, is focused on putting in place reforms that stabilise electricity bills. They're talking about whether or not their kids will get a job. And we've grown 1.5 million additional jobs.

Patricia Karvelas:         I imagine they absolutely care about jobs, as so they should, but …

Simon Birmingham:     And they're the things that they will be talking about far more than what you or the media might be talking about.

Patricia Karvelas:         What we know, though, is that standards matter and high standards in our Parliament matter …

Simon Birmingham:     Absolutely. And that's why there will be full cooperation with the investigation.

Patricia Karvelas:         … and that ordinary Australians care about high standards in our Parliament, right? They care about ministerial integrity and ministerial standards being adhered to, so why is your Government not adhering to the ministerial code?

Simon Birmingham:     You seem to be- well we are, Patricia. And you seem to be pre-judging the outcome here.

Patricia Karvelas:         No, this is- I'm not-

Simon Birmingham:     The tone of your question.

Patricia Karvelas:         No, no. The question is this- No, the tone is- I'll make it crystal clear.

Simon Birmingham:     We will completely cooperate with the investigation.

Patricia Karvelas:         While the investigation is ongoing, subject to its outcome, the Minister standing aside. I am not saying: sack the Minister permanently. Why not stand him aside while police investigate?

Simon Birmingham:     Because we want him to get on with the job, and we will cooperate fully with the police investigation. The Prime Minister has done due diligence in the time since this matter was raised just a couple of hours ago, in ascertaining that the police are simply acting on the political referral of the federal Labor opposition.

Patricia Karvelas:         Are you saying that the police- this is a political investigation?

Simon Birmingham:     No, I'm saying the police, of course, need to do their job. As I said before, I am sure the federal Labor Party would criticise the police if they didn't look at this letter that the Labor Party have sent them and investigate it. And so, the police are quite possibly in a no-win situation there, but I have no doubt the police will do a thorough job. The Government will cooperate with them in so far as that's required.

Patricia Karvelas:         Final question on this, because I do want to get to other issues. In fact, that's why I invited you. I did not know this story was going to break this afternoon.

Simon Birmingham:     That's why I agreed, too.

Patricia Karvelas:         Yes, of course. This the way the world works and this Parliament works. Will Angus Taylor still be the Minister for Energy and Emissions by the end of next week?

Simon Birmingham:     Patricia, yes. I'm sure. I mean, events unfold of course, but I am confident that Angus has outlined the issues in relation to this matter and no doubt that's what will be proven as a result of these undertakings and investigations.

Patricia Karvelas:         Minister, I respect you have answered these questions. It is not your issue and you are not the Minister responsible.

So just on a few other issues. Let's move to Westpac now. The CEO Brian Hartzer will resign. The chairman is going too – will go early, rather. Should the rest of the board go now too, particularly after those revelations this morning in The Australian newspaper about some commentary where, you know, in terms of Brian Hartzer, he really talked down how serious this was?

Simon Birmingham:     Well look, I said on the weekend that I thought the senior executive and the board needed to reflect upon their positions, and clearly they do. And now they also owe a duty to shareholders, which they have failed in terms of these terrible failures to date of the Westpac board in not administering properly these issues. But they owe a duty to shareholders in terms of managing the issues of transition and so on that the bank has to undergo at present. Whether there are further decisions to come from Westpac is a matter for them. But the Government has been very clear, we are full of praise for our regulator in AUSTRAC who have uncovered these failures in Westpac. Of course, other regulatory agencies now in terms of ASIC and APRA are undertaking further scrutiny in relation to the role of the leadership team and the management of Westpac and that's entirely thorough. And that is why we have those watchdogs on the beat.

Patricia Karvelas:         The Senate, and you will be excited by this question because it is right down your alley, has passed this enabling legislation now for a free-trade deal that has been signed with Hong Kong, Peru and Indonesia. Indonesia's parliament is yet to ratify that deal on their end, of course. What is the hold up?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, there is not a hold up. They too had an election this year, and so President Widodo was only sworn in again a couple of months ago. He has appointed a new ministry, but I have been in touch with my counterpart in Indonesia this afternoon to give him the good news that the Australian Senate has passed the enabling legislation for the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. He has given me, as we've had consistently, expectations. This matter is now progressing through Indonesia's parliamentary processes and that we are on track to see all of that concluded early next year – for entry into force early next year of this agreement. And that's great news because as a government, we've managed to drive Australian exports to record levels as a result of trade agreements with multiple countries. And those opportunities we want to see grow in terms of giving Australian farmers and businesses even more choices of where they can
get their high-quality Australian exports to, in Indonesia, right on our doorstep, very large population, fast-growing economy, is a wonderful chance for them to be able to seize new opportunities or diversify.

Patricia Karvelas:         And what sort of commitment did you get in that conversation about the kind of timeframe for them passing the legislation as well?

Simon Birmingham:     They're confident they're working to a timeframe that is not too far behind us, and that it should pass through their parliamentary processes, as I say, by early next year, which will enable the agreement to come into force and action also in that front half of next year.

Patricia Karvelas:         Australia played a key role in negotiating the RCEP regional free trade agreement, but you couldn't get India – as, of course, you know - over the line. What value does the deal with without having India onboard?

Simon Birmingham:     It still has significant value. It's a 15-nation agreement that, with India, comprises around 32 per cent of global GDP. And without India, it comprises around 29 per cent of global GDP. So that's still a huge agreement in terms of countries at the table. It will provide for a very strong, common regional architecture around trade rules. So, in terms of product, rules of origin, the ability to be able to have recognition of businesses integrating into value chains across the region, further liberalisation of ability for Australian businesses in the services sector to compete in many of those 14 other countries.

Now, we hope that India still decides to come onboard. We have made sure the door is left wide open to India. It would be a better agreement with them, but it is still a very valuable one without them.

Patricia Karvelas:         Local council elections, of course, and results have been held in Hong Kong. They have delivered a huge blow against Beijing political pears, do you see this as a vote of no confidence in Beijing?

Simon Birmingham:     I think we would encourage the Hong Kong authorities and the Chinese authorities to reflect upon the results there, and to understand that, again, this is a demonstration that there are concerns that ought to be worked through peacefully and respectfully and consistently with the basic law that was established under one country, two systems. Now, we have seen some court judgements, for example, over recent months in terms of Hong Kong courts ruling that bans on facial masks were unconstitutional, and allowing that to occur - that demonstrates that elements of that two systems are clearly holding up strongly and it is one of the reasons why we have progressed with the Australia-Hong Kong free trade agreement, because that in itself is a demonstration of two systems. We have a separate trade agreement with the People's Republic of China to the one that we are now in the process of ratifying with the Hong Kong region.

Patricia Karvelas:         Minister, as you know, ASIO is investigating claims that Chinese luxury car dealer was offered a million dollars to run for a Liberal Party pre-selection seat, the seat of Chisholm. Did he have links to the Liberal Party and is the party investigating the claims?

Simon Birmingham:     Look, I'm not aware of the individual. I'm obviously aware of the claims, and they have had extensive media coverage, and they are very disturbing claims. They are rightly under investigation,
or being acknowledged and looked at by the national security agencies. They're the right ones to undertake those sorts of investigations, and of course I would expect everyone to cooperate if there are any questions that come up as a result of that.

Patricia Karvelas:         As an economic minister, of course, you have been keen to continue ties with China, trade is important to our economy with the Chinese of course and the economy there. That story - and there have been others - all centre around Chinese interference, influence. How has that affected your job and your communications with key players in China?

Simon Birmingham:     I think we've demonstrated as a government an ability to get on with protecting Australia's interests in terms of the safety and security of our democracy and protection of our values, as well as ensuring that we advance and grow the trade relationship and the economic relationship as much as we can.

Patricia Karvelas:         But that's becoming much more difficult now, isn't it, Minister?

Simon Birmingham:     It has been publicly acknowledged there've been occasional tensions in that regard. But our trade data, our economic exchange, our trade growth has only continued to go upwards during this time, notwithstanding some of the issues. And as a government, we've still put in place strong foreign interference protections, a new national watchdog in that regard. We've put in place additional resourcing for security agencies, we have made decisions in terms of foreign investment to protect critical infrastructure and emerging technologies. They are all very important changes that we have applied. Importantly, the economic relationship also is a vehicle though for engagement and dialogue. So it provides opportunities for Australian Government to be able to, as part of our diplomatic undertaking, raise concerns when we have them on human rights issues. It provides a vehicle as well for us in terms of growing those ties to enhance the people-to-people link. So they are important things to try to get improvements overtime in some of the areas that we do hold concerns about.

Patricia Karvelas:         Minister, do you have any plans to go to China. Are there any trips planned, are you trying to secure a trip?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, I was in China only a couple of weeks ago…

Patricia Karvelas:         Yes or no?

Simon Birmingham:     … so I haven't quite bedded down when next year I might next be there.

Patricia Karvelas:         But that is your plan?

Simon Birmingham:     I would anticipate going back to China again next year. And that's an important part as Trade Minister of continuing to support our businesses in their trading relationships which are not just of benefit to Australia, but are of benefit to their partners in China.

Patricia Karvelas:         Is there any chance the Prime Minister will be invited?

Simon Birmingham:     Look, the Prime Minister's travels are a matter for the PM, and in terms of invitations from other countries, well, that is a matter for those other countries.

Patricia Karvelas:         Trade Minister, thank you so much for coming in.

Simon Birmingham:     Thank you Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas:         And that is the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, of course. The beginning of that conversation very much focused on this breaking news this afternoon.

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