Interview on ABC News, News Breakfast, with Michael Rowland
Michael Rowland: Speaking of Christmas, it is the final parliamentary sitting week of the year in Canberra and there is a lot going on. Let's bring in the Finance and Trade Minister Simon Birmingham. Minister, good morning to you.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Michael.
Michael Rowland: I want to start with the breach of the quarantine rules in Sydney. The Prime Minister has long lauded New South Wales as having, in his words, the gold standard, when it comes to responding to the coronavirus pandemic. So given that, how disappointed are you that this quarantine system was so spectacularly breached over the weekend?
Simon Birmingham: Well it is disappointing, Michael. No doubt about it. And it is a reminder that the relentless task of bringing thousands of returning Australians home each and every week as we continue to do so, working closely with the states and territories, is a real challenge, and it is the greatest area of potential vulnerability in terms of COVID spreading into the community. And it's why there needs to be continuous work to make sure that all of the systems and checks and balances are in place to be able to do that safely. I note that NSW Police have apologised for the failure on this occasion, and no doubt this will cause further reviews. But today, we do welcome the fact that Victoria, for the first time since June 30, South Australia for the first time in some weeks, will begin to do their part again in terms of repatriating Australians back into Australia. But that all are doing so with much tightened rules around how that hotel quarantine works to try to make sure that we can avoid any future failures.
Michael Rowland: Okay. One of key pieces of legislation set to be considered by Parliament this week is that Foreign Relations Bill, which would give the Commonwealth the power to override trade deals done by state governments with other countries, including China. If that bill is passed, will the Government step in and seek to tear up the deal the state of Victoria has done with China?
Simon Birmingham: So Michael, this Foreign Relations Bill ensures that states and territories, when they are entering into agreements with foreign governments at a national level, they have to have those agreements checked and signed off by the Federal Government as the right constitutional authority with responsibility for Australia's foreign policy and how that works. I think all Australians would get that the national Government enters into agreements with other national governments. And if states and territories do so, it ought to be done so in a way consistent with our foreign policy, whoever the national government of the day is. Now this law puts in place that framework. It will require the states and territories within a three-month period to provide details of their existing agreements, of which there are quite a number - more than 100- around 130, I think, existing agreements from memory, and of those agreements, we will then go through a careful and methodical process of assessing them and the Foreign Minister will make an ultimate determination.
Michael Rowland: Okay. The Federal Government has not been a great fan of this deal, the so-called Belt and Road deal with China, struck by Victoria. Will the Government now, if this legislation is passed, step in, and as you say, methodically go through it, but in the end, seek to tear it up?
Simon Birmingham: Well, it wouldn't exactly be methodically going through these things in good faith if I was then to say that there’s an automatic predisposition at the end to tear something up. We’re going to go through it with the proper processes. That's why we're putting this law in place, not just for this agreement, indeed the majority of these agreements that exist between the states and territories and foreign governments at a national level around the rest of the world, are with countries other than China. And so we will go through all of them, whomever they may be with and do it against the laws that have been passed against the foreign policy of the nation, and decisions will be made in a timely but proper and considered way.
Michael Rowland: Speaking of the Foreign Minister, I found it interesting that Penny Wong, the Shadow Finance Minister on Insiders yesterday, said she has had no contact with Marise Payne, the Minister, on trying to come up with a combined position on China. She said Julie Bishop, the former Foreign Minister, was on the phone to her quite a bit. Do you find that a bit odd?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I find it perhaps a little bit odd that Penny chose to use national television to air grievances about how often she has a conversation with a colleague. In the end, parliamentarians have different relationships with one another...
Michael Rowland: They were useful conversations, though, by the sounds of it. We're talking about a serious foreign policy and national security here.
Simon Birmingham: And, at appropriate junctures, briefings are given to the Opposition. The Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence, a bipartisan committee, receives frequent and regular briefings in relation to sensitive foreign policy and national security matters. There's a range of different formulations there to ensure that the Opposition of the day is well briefed.
Michael Rowland: Okay. As Finance Minister, do you reckon it was appropriate for the Prime Minister and the Treasurer to bill taxpayers nearly $5000 to fly up to Lachlan Murdoch's Christmas party last year?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I can't say that I've seen those stories, Michael, but the rules-
Michael Rowland: It's been widely circulated. It was published in The Guardian last Friday.
Simon Birmingham: The rules in relation to parliamentary entitlements are there. There's an Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority, and that independent authority makes sure that everybody abides by the rules, regardless of which office any of us hold.
Michael Rowland: Okay. But they flew up, that has been established, after 6 o’clock, they returned before 9am the next morning. One of the rules when it comes to using the special purpose aircraft, as was the case with the Prime Minister's jet here, was that the dominant purpose of the trip had to be parliamentary business. Was going to Lachlan Murdoch's Christmas party, in your view, parliamentary business?
Simon Birmingham: I'm not aware of what other business may have been conducted in that. But the terms and approaches around parliamentary business are clear, and the independent authority is there to be able to ensure that all of us, whatever the office we hold, conduct ourselves in accordance with those rules.
Michael Rowland: Okay. We'll leave it there. Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks Michael. My pleasure.