SUBJECTS: Hekmatullah; Climate change; Net zero by 2050; Tony Abbott; Taiwan.
DAVID BEVAN, HOST: Let's welcome Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Finance and Leader of the Government in the Senate. Good morning, Minister.
SENATOR SIMON BIRMINGHAM, MINISTER FOR FINANCE: Good morning, David, good morning Penny and good morning listeners.
BEVAN: And Senator Penny Wong, good morning to you.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good morning all, good to be with you.
BEVAN: Now, Penny Wong you've just stepped out of a federal parliamentary committee looking into Afghanistan – and perhaps you could explain why that committee was set up – but it's timely we speak to you because the front page of The Australian today is that Hekmatullah, the rogue Afghan army soldier, who murdered three Australians in 2012 has been allowed to walk free.
WONG: Well first, this is an inquiry I think that is merited, which arose out of the very tragic, upsetting images and reality of what has occurred in Afghanistan. So, it is an opportunity to look at some of the issues raised, for example why it took so long for the Government to respond to the warnings of ADF personnel and the Opposition about making sure we got interpreters and others who helped us out. But look, the Hekmatullah issue is deeply distressing, and I want to say at the outset: the families of the three Australians who were killed – Sapper Martin, Private Poate and Lance Corporal Milosevic – this must be a very difficult day and I hope the Government will provide these families and friends with a full explanation about when the Government knew that Hekmatullah was to be released, and what they did to try and prevent that.
I mean, we have been raising this for some time. We have previously raised our strong objections, which I think are shared by certainly many Australians and members of the ADF as to Hekmatullah being included in the list of Taliban prisoners who were to be released. And I asked these questions of the Foreign Minister and Defence Minister last year and was told that they'd sought assurances from the US, Afghan and Qatari counterparts that he wouldn't be released early. So how has this happened and what have we done about it?
BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, The Australian says it can reveal the confessed killer was released from house arrest in Qatar along with five other high-risk prisoners soon after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. What's going on?
BIRMINGHAM: Well David, indeed this will be distressing news for families of the loved ones of the soldiers who had their lives so cruelly taken by Hekmatullah. OurGovernment's position has always been that Hekmatullah should serve a sentence appropriate to his crimes, that he should not be granted early release or pardon in any circumstances – and we have made those representations repeatedly to authorities of different governments for many, many years now. There have been multiple occasions where speculation has arisen about his potential release. Unfortunately, it does appear that he has been released from custody now. Obviously, the circumstances have changed rather significantly in Afghanistan over the course of recent months and not all of those representations have been able to be as successful as they had been in the past.
WONG: The question that I'd like to know is when did the Government know and did they inform the families of the three men who were killed?
BIRMINGHAM: Well Penny, I don't have those details to hand in terms of when precisely we became aware. Obviously, those questions – I've got no doubt you've asked them and will be asked. And I'm sure that relevant ministers will be able to provide information there. It's not been the most easy of processes over a long period of time to maintain track and awareness of Hekmatullah; and movements and decision making surrounding him. But certainly, there has been a lot of activity over a long period of time consistently at senior levels of government in representations to other foreign governments as we have sought to maintain that position that he should serve a sentence, appropriate to his crimes.
WONG: Yeah, I just hope the families were aware before it ran on the front page of the paper, that's all.
BEVAN: Well, we'll see. Simon Birmingham, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has warned the Coalition could lose the election if it overreaches on climate targets in Glasgow. What does overreaching mean?
BIRMINGHAM: I think overreaching is to act in any ways that would give people undue concern about their jobs, their region, their towns and communities and fears that they may be left behind as part of any transition. And so that's why we are doing all the appropriate work at present to be able to take the strongest possible position to Glasgow in terms of tracking to net zero emissions, but doing it alongside appropriate plans that give regional communities, towns and populations certainty that the plans to get us to net zero will also enable them to transition and enable them to have the type of job security that they should want for themselves and their kids in their local communities for decades to come.
BEVAN: Well, your colleague in the Senate, Bob Katter, was giving this advice in AM earlier today:
If the National Party and the elements in the LNP in Queensland go with zero emissions, they will kiss goodbye to five super marginal seats in North Queensland. So, you've got all these super marginal seats up for grabs and the whole lot go and they'll never get them back. Not in my lifetime anyway.
BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, is he right?
BIRMINGHAM: Well, I don't think he's right, but his comments highlight the process that we have to go through in terms of bringing people with us right across Australia; getting people to appreciate that Australia has managed to reduce our emissions by more than 20 per cent since 2005. We've done that while still growing our economy and creating more jobs. We've managed to reduce our emissions faster than some other countries like Canada, or Japan or New Zealand. We've still managed to enhance opportunities in regional Australia and the investments we're making now in a technology-driven platform in areas like hydrogen or in terms of how we can make sure that our steel and aluminium sectors can transition to a greener production.
BEVAN: But Katter's got a very simple message, hasn't he? Katter's got a very simple message. If you go to zero net by 2050, you're going to lose five seats. That's the maths.
BIRMINGHAM: That's the claim. I don't accept the basis of the claim, but we certainly don't take those five seats or any others across the country for granted and it's why we have to move beyond yes, the simple message as you put it David, and make sure that we are explaining the benefits to Australians and the necessity of this; that there's an environmental necessity attached to moving towards net zero. There are economic necessities, as indeed other countries' production decisions will impact on Australia.
In the end, our resources sector, our agriculture sector will be judged in terms of how we behave, in part, on net zero emissions and that means their access into the markets that actually buy those resources, those products at present, will be impacted. So, we have good reasons economically, as well as environmentally, and for our place as a good partner in the world to move ahead. But that means we've got to work through in each of those different communities – some parts of Australia are very, very, very enthusiastic to move as quickly as possible, others have genuine doubts and those genuine doubts, they should not be dismissed, they should be worked through to make sure we give them as much certainty as possible.
BEVAN: Penny Wong, is climate policy now politically risk free for Labor?
WONG: Can I first make this point: the questions you put to Simon, and his very lengthy answers, really don't remind people of the truth of the matter. And the truth of the matter is Barnaby Joyce has a veto on Scott Morrison's climate policy. And because Barnaby Joyce has a veto now as Deputy Prime Minister, and frankly has had a veto always, no matter how many words per minute Simon gives you, this Government will never respond on climate change. They will never act in the way that we need to protect ourselves and our future.
BEVAN: Well Bob Katter would say: and if you don't start listening to the Barnaby Joyce's and the Bob Katters, you're going to stay in opposition.
WONG: Yeah, well I can tell you this: I will always argue for action on climate change and I always have because it is the right thing to do. And because I don't think I want to look at my kids and say to them: "oh you know all those job opportunities the world is already investing in, we just let them pass you by". "You know all of the environmental and climate risk that you're now experiencing, we didn't deal with it".
I just think if you're in Parliament, you should actually do something on this. And the reality is Barnaby Joyce, from the time I was Climate Minister in 2009 until now, has had a veto on climate action by the Coalition, which is why if you want any action on climate change, you have to change the government. It is as simple as that: you have to change the government.
BEVAN: Now, before we let you two get back to running the country and quizzing people in committees...
WONG: Quizzing people about the country.
BEVAN: Quizzing people about the country. Tony Abbott, former prime minister, is he helping our region by telling the world that Australia must stand shoulder to shoulder with Taiwan? Penny Wong –
WONG: Look, Taiwan is a very sensitive issue and we've seen some really worrying behaviour by China in recent times, over the last week or so. I want to register my disappointment with some of the comments by Chinese representatives about Mr Abbott's speech. I think we should be listening to Tsai Ing-wen, who's the President of Taiwan, who called again over the weekend for the status quo. She says we call for the maintaining of the status quo and we will do our utmost to prevent the status quo from being unilaterally altered. And that is the position that both parties of government have had and that is the position we should continue to assert to the region and to China.
BEVAN: So, is Tony Abbott helping?
WONG: Look, I'm not going to criticise him for making a speech as a former leader. Obviously, you know, serving politicians – whether it's Simon or I – we have to be very sensitive about the issue of Taiwan because it is a sensitive issue and has been for many years. But I again say, we should heed the words of the President of Taiwan calling for the status quo. I think what we would say to China is any differences do need to be resolved peacefully and without the threat over the use of force or coercion and that is the expectation of the whole region, not just Australia.
BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, last word to you. Is Tony Abbott helping?
BIRMINGHAM: Look, as Penny rightly says, former leaders give speeches around the world on a range of things.
BIRMINGHAM: Tony made clear he didn't run his speech past the Government before he gave it and nor did the Prime Minister or anybody speak with him before he went to Taiwan. They are his matters. Government policy and approach is clear, including that conflict and the type of sharpening of tensions that's occurring as a result of some of the incursions into airspace that we've seen lately is unhelpful and we really would, of course, urge both parties there, in terms of China and Taiwan, to work to maintain the type of peace that is essential to our region.
BEVAN: But is he raising the temperature or is he just speaking plainly? And is now the time for plain speaking a la Tony Abbott?
BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think words matter but actions are even more impactful at times. And I guess if tensions are being raised right now, they are predominantly being raised by the increased air incursions by China into Taiwan's air defence zone that we've seen and that is most unhelpful. And we would urge China to respect the type of approach that has maintained peace over a good period of time.
Can I also just add David, because I've received a bit of information while we've been talking that I understand Department of Defence and army officials, as you'd expect, are in close contact with the families of the murdered soldiers by Hekmatullah and had discussed with them last week the probability or possibility of his impending release.
BEVAN: Right, so as painful as this is, you're saying efforts were made to warn them that this was coming?
BIRMINGHAM: Yes, I am advised that Defence had those discussions, as we discussed before, the knowledge that this was a constant battle if you like by the Australian Government to try to keep him detained and serving a sentence was a long one, but obviously as the risk that that was going to ultimately not be successful, those direct discussions were had with the family.
BEVAN: Okay, Simon Birmingham thanks for your time and Senator Penny Wong, thank you for yours.
WONG: Good to be with you.
BIRMINGHAM: Thanks David, thanks Penny.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.