Doorstop, Parliament House Canberra

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: State borders, Australian citizen detained in China and Investigations into Australian wine
01 September 2020

Simon Birmingham: I urge Australia's state and territory leaders to engage constructively in an evidence-based process around the definitions of hot spots and the opening up of borders ahead of national cabinet this Friday. We are seeing many, many jobs being lost across the country and they will continue to be lost in our travel and tourism sector and many lives disrupted, especially in cross-border communities if we don't get a common approach in terms of definitions of hotspots, the opening of borders and a consistent national road map to support communities and to save lives.

Could I also touch on the news overnight in relation to Ms Cheng Lei. Ms Cheng Lei is an Australian citizen who has been detained in China. Our authorities were advised on the 14 of August in relation to her detention. We had consular access via video link on the 27 of August and Ms Cheng's family have issued a statement acknowledging the process that is underway and asking for respect in terms of their privacy, but also for restraint in terms of public commentary. And the Australian government will continue to provide Ms Cheng and her family with every consular assistance that we can. And we hope these matters can be resolved in a timely and proper manner.

Question:, Does the Government know why she's been detained?

Simon Birmingham: I'm not in a position to go into that. We, as I said, will continue to provide the consular assistance that we can to her and through the proper processes.

Question: Minister, this is the second Australian on top of Dr Yang Hengjun who's been detained by the Chinese in China. Are you concerned that the Chinese government is engaging in a tit for tat retaliation, arresting Australian citizens in China?

Simon Birmingham: We would ask for all proper processes to be followed in relation to any case, and that in those cases, they be dealt with as expeditiously as possible according to proper processes. There's nothing to be gained by ministers and the Australian government seeking to attribute any other motivations. We want to engage in providing consular support. We can and hope to see these matters resolved in a proper process as expeditiously as possible.

Question: Timing is concerning, though, isn't it?

Simon Birmingham: As I said, I'm not going to run speculation around linkages or otherwise. This matter, we will treat on the issue itself in terms of providing the support that we can and seeking hopefully for it to be dealt with in the proper way.

Question: How is her condition and welfare during the video link with consular officials?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I have no reason to believe there are any points of concern there, but we will maintain that consular access wherever we can.

Question: How do you maintain this access to her and this diplomacy through the Chinese government if you can't talk to your Chinese counterpart over an issue like wine exports?

Simon Birmingham: Our embassy officials and diplomatic and consular staff continue to work closely with Chinese authorities and other officials wherever they can. Yes, at a trade level, I would like very much for the Chinese government to agree to have ministerial level conversations, because that is the best way for us to confront some of the issues that we have at this present time and to make sure we work through them. And that's what mature nations should do. However the Australian government remains very firm, willing and committed to have those discussions, but in relation to these sensitive consular matters, we will handle them sensitively and we hope that they will be handled in a manner that is in accordance with proper process and dealt with as expeditiously as they can be.

Question: Have you made further contact, a request for contact with your Chinese counterpart since this second probe was announced into an investigation into alleged subsidies?

Simon Birmingham: Well the countervailing duties investigation was foreshadowed at the time that the anti-dumping investigation was launched subsequent to the launching of that anti-dumping investigation, foreshadowing the countervailing duties investigation. I have written to my Chinese counterpart and obviously in that requested that we have appropriate dialogue.

Question: Ms Cheng had been vocal about her struggles to get her children into Beijing, with the border closures, does that have anything to do with her arrest?

Simon Birmingham: I'm not in a position to comment on that.

Question: I know you said, you're not in the position to go into the details behind the arrest, but have the Australian consular officials been informed of what she is suspected or accused of being involved in.

Simon Birmingham: Again, I'm not in a position to comment in terms of the detail of conversations that have been had between our consular officials and Ms Cheng. We respect the family's request for privacy, her family's request that the process be respected at this time and for comment to be limited. And we will do whatever we can need to be limited and we will do what we can and to make sure that we act in her best interests in relation to our consular assistance and our public commentary or engagement on this matter.

Question: Given we've heard very, very little about the case of Dr Yang Hengjun since he was detained more than a year ago. How concerned are you now about the position that Cheng Lei is in and what she could be going through over the next little while?

Simon Birmingham: Our concerns for Ms Cheng are genuine and real and that is why we will work as hard as we can to provide her with the consular assistance that she is entitled to and why I would hope these matters can be dealt with according to proper process and as expeditiously as possible.

Question: Do you support the planned increase in the super guarantee?

Simon Birmingham: These are matters where you can see widespread public commentary and analysis by economic commentators, others acknowledging the different economic impacts that come from changes to superannuation, including the impacts that the Reserve Bank governor has highlighted in relation to a suppressive effect on wages growth that will all be considered appropriately by the government.

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