Interview on 2GB, Ben Fordham Live with Ben Fordham

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: China-Australia trade relations.
18 May 2020

Ben Fordham: Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Trade, is on the line. Minister, good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Ben, it’s good to be with you.

Ben Fordham: Any phone calls answered yet?

Simon Birmingham: No, I just got off the phone from my Japanese counterpart. But, no, look, we have put out the call for a discussion with China. They’ve not agreed at this stage. The Australian Government is always open to have conversations with our international partners, even if they’re difficult ones, even if we disagree. We will engage and we prefer others to reciprocate in kind. But it’s certainly not stopping us at the diplomatic, the officials’ level, and in every other way we can from putting the strongest arguments forward in defence of our barley producers, in defence of our beef processors, and to make sure that those trade lines stay open as much as possible.

Ben Fordham: You’ve now got 116 countries backing an international inquiry, so- I mean, that sends a message to China. It’s not about Australia and China here, this is about the rest of the world just wanting to know what happened.

Simon Birmingham: This has always been about much bigger issue, and that is that hundreds of thousands of people around the world have died, millions of people have lost their jobs, and billions of people have had their lives disrupted, and the least anybody should want is to have a full investigation so that we can learn the lessons from it, be well prepared for it in the future, ideally be able to prevent it from happening again in the future. And look, we welcome the fact that there is strong global engagement. And we hope that everybody, including China, will ultimately engage in this investigation because we all have things we can benefit from. In the end, China’s economy has seen its first period of negative growth of decline in more than 40 years, and of course they’ve lost many, many lives there too, and so this is about getting answers for all of us.

Ben Fordham: We know that the US President Donald Trump has been very strong in his language on China and COVID-19, so is there any reason why the United States is not yet on board with this team effort at the moment to try and get answers?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I expect the United States would ultimately support the motion. What we’re seeing is many countries signing up to co-sponsor the initiative. It’s a European Union motion that Australia’s co-sponsoring, and others are. And it just demonstrates the broad basis of support there. We’ve been clear all along from an Australian perspective that this isn’t about ascribing blame or anything else of that sort. It’s purely about understanding what happened, how it’s been handled around the world, including through entities like the World Health Organization, so that we, as I say, learn those lessons and are much, much better prepared for the future.

Ben Fordham: Will the Chinese ambassador be reprimanded for threatening a boycott of Aussie goods?

Simon Birmingham: I think Ambassador Cheng’s remarks were unhelpful, and they are part of the reason why so many people are asking me now whether these issues around barley and beef are as a result of questions about having this investigation. You know, Chinese authorities have been at pains when they’ve been questioned on this to say very clearly that these are long-running technical trade disputes, and so that’s the way Australia is responding. We’ve responded on the technical argument, delivering, in the case of barley, more than 10,000 pages of supporting evidence, the economic and market analysis to demonstrate that our barley producers are nothing but fair dinkum farmers who operate without subsidy, get out to the world market, and do so with good volumes at competitive prices just because they are some of the best, most productive farmers in the world — not because they’ve got any subsidy, and certainly not because they’re dumping their product on other countries.

Ben Fordham: I mean, let’s be fair dinkum too, believe the line that this is not some kind of retaliation, you’d have to be gullible.

Simon Birmingham: Well, we know the barley issue has been a live investigation for 18 months. We were notified of that some time ago. It was always going to come to a head at this time, so the best interest of our farmers is served by us responding in good faith, addressing the details of those arguments, and we hope that the compelling nature of those arguments sees China make the right decision, and that would be to not impose any duties on our barley. Ultimately, as I said, our farmers, as all Australians know, operate without massive government subsidies and just happen to be some of the best in the world.

Ben Fordham: Okay. We’ll see what happens tonight at the World Health Assembly. In the meantime, trying to get an answer out of the Chinese to pick up your call, I’d love to know how this works. I’m guessing that someone representing you contacts someone representing your counterpart and tries to line up a phone call, and it just hasn’t eventuated. Is that a fair description?

Simon Birmingham: Essentially yes. Obviously, embassies talk to one another. Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade or equivalence in different countries talk to one another, and to the different countries’ embassies. When you’ve got translation issues and all of those things, it’s not quite as simple as just picking up the phone and giving a mate a call,

Ben Fordham: It’s a terrible feeling though, isn’t it, it’s a terrible feeling. It happened to me when I was a young bloke, when you’re trying to chase a girl and you put in a phone call and you keep thinking: oh, maybe she’ll ring back tonight — and it just doesn’t come.

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I’d love for Beijing to pop up on my phone right now, but ultimately we’re giving it our all through every other possible means, and as I say, we’ve replied thoroughly and comprehensively with the detail to refute the claims that have been made, and we’re using all possible means to get the message through. Australia wants to maintain good constructive ties with China, wants to make sure that our trade flows — which are mutually beneficial, and I say Chinese officials in the financial review today describing the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement as being mutually beneficial. We want those mutual benefits to continue so that both of our countries and economies can rebound from this current crisis.

Ben Fordham: Well, I hope they don’t keep you hanging too much longer. Thanks so much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Ben, my pleasure.

Ben Fordham: Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Trade.

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