Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Mornings, with David Bevan
David Bevan: Good morning, Simon Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David Bevan, good to be with you.
David Bevan: Basically Scott Morrison, he’s over state government – I think he’s particularly thinking of Victoria – but state governments, and universities, and local councils doing deals with foreign countries.
Simon Birmingham: Well, the Australian Constitution is very clear that responsibility for foreign policy lies with the national government in Australia – as Australian’s would all expect it to. On our assessment there could be upwards of 135 different agreements with over 30 countries coming from states and territories, but also sometimes local governments, universities and others. We just want to put in place a process to make sure that those agreements are consistent with our foreign policy, are consistently in Australia’s national interests, so that when we are engaging with foreign governments around the world we’re speaking with one voice.
David Bevan: You’re particularly cranky with the Victorian Government and the agreement it’s reached with China – this is- that’s the outstanding example. Is that fair?
Simon Birmingham: That agreement certainly attracted a lot of attention, but we’re not prejudging any agreement. We’re going to set in place a proper legislative process where, over the course of the next six months, all the states and territories and other parties will be able to register with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade agreements they’ve struck – those agreements can then be reviewed to make sure they are consistent with our foreign policy settings. And future agreements they seek to enter into – we’re not saying they can’t, but again there’ll be a proper process there where they can identify at the outset their intending to, get clearance there, and then make sure that the text of such agreements is also- is consistent with Australia’s foreign policy settings and our national interests.
David Bevan: So the legislation that will be debated, is it next week?
Simon Birmingham: Well the legislation will be introduced and we’ll see the scheduling of the parliamentary process as to how, how quickly it gets through the parliament – but, you know, we hope it will pass quickly. I hear the Labor Party saying that they accept that foreign policy setting is exclusively a matter for the Federal Government of Australia and therefore I trust they will support the legislation, and it should go through smoothly and quickly.
David Bevan: Will it in any way be retrospective?
Simon Birmingham: Well it’s retrospective, not in terms of, in terms of the, you know, going backwards I guess – but it does have a call-in, if you like, for all agreements, as I said before, that are currently in existence. So they will all have to be tabled to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, put on a transparent register and process over the course of the next six months, and then they will all be reviewed appropriately by DFAT and the Foreign Minister, ultimately, empowered to make a determination as to whether or not they’re consistent with foreign policy settings. In many of them, I’m sure, we’d simply deal with, for example, cooperation between South Australia and the French Government in relation to the French Language School that was established to support the submarine project down at Osborne – that will presumably be captured, but also presumably there’s nothing in that that would be contrary to our objectives and interests, and so it will get a tick, and go on the register, and life will go on.
David Bevan: Well, it’s one thing to have those sort of deals with France – I mean the Federal Government signed up to get them to help us build our submarines. It’s another thing for a state government, i.e. Victoria, dealing with President Xi Jinping and his Belt and Road Initiative. And while you may not be able to pull those agreements apart, you will for the first time have full access to what’s going on. Is that fair?
Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s appropriate. Australia’s Government is-
David Bevan: No. Is that a fair, a fair summary of what’s actually going to happen?
Simon Birmingham: Well I think it is, David, in the terms that yes, we will for the first time have a full process where states and territories, and other government instrumentalities, local governments, universities – public universities at least – who are signing agreements with foreign governments will have to go through a process with the Australian Government to make sure that those agreements are consistent with our foreign policy objectives.
David Bevan: Okay. Before you leave us, I think Peter Rathjen was- was he appointed Vice-Chancellor of Adelaide University while you were Federal Education Minister?
Simon Birmingham: I’m actually not sure, David, I can’t remember the sequence. He was Chanc- he was Vice-Chancellor at the University of Tasmania for most of my time as Federal Education Minister – I think I might have been in the Trade portfolio by the time he was appointed to Adelaide – but the timing would be tight.
David Bevan: Right. Well, I’m told that you were a backer – you thought Rathjen was a good appointment.
Simon Birmingham: Look, I, I don’t- I didn’t have a role in the appointment. I obviously had worked with Peter at UTAS, I’d seen that he had done good things down there in terms of the way in which he’d expanded opportunity at the University of Tasmania and made some of their courses more relevant to employment outcomes and opportunities there. And so, so I certainly – if I was asked, and I don’t recall whether I was, but I would have talked about those things that I had seen and witnessed in terms of his work at UTAS.
David Bevan: And bitterly disappointed with how it’s all unfolded.
Simon Birmingham: It is very disappointing, and especially disappointing for the University of Adelaide which is an institution that should not be judged at all by this event. It is an institution that still is providing world-class research, world-class graduates and is an important institution for South Australia. And we all need to be very mindful of distinguishing between conduct that unacceptable by its Vice-Chancellor in terms of his relationship and management of staff, versus the outstanding research and academic outcomes of the university and the contribution to SA.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.
Simon Birmingham: My pleasure.
David Bevan: Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment; former Federal Education Minister.