Interview on ABC News, Afternoon Briefing with Patricia Karvelas

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

Patricia Karvelas: I spoke to the Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham a short time ago.

[Excerpt]

Minister, welcome.

Simon Birmingham: Good to be with you.

Patricia Karvelas: You've revealed that you’ve requested a phone call with your Chinese Government counterpart over these beef bans, have you got any response as we go to air?

Simon Birmingham: We don't have one scheduled as yet. I hope that China will be willing to engage in those discussions, but they're not the only pathway that we’re pursuing to try to resolve these issues in relation to the beef sector and the barley industry, and we'll make sure that we pursue every avenue that’s available to us, starting very much with using the technical administrative pathways that are available because of the nature of the type of issues that China has initiated investigations or actions around.

Patricia Karvelas: So, when you say you haven't got a response from your counterpart, obviously there's a lot of things that go into trying to make one of these conversations happen. When do you expect to get a formal response or find out whether you will be able to have a formal meeting?

Simon Birmingham: Look, the ball is there very much in the court of the Chinese Government. We have made very clear that I am available and keen to have a discussion where we can discuss and canvas some of these trade related matters. There are other global issues in relation to WTO operation and the like that no doubt we’d canvas as well during the conversation, but this is not the sole pathway for the Australian Government to make representations to the Chinese Government. That is why we have a very active embassy in Beijing, with strong connections and engagement into other avenues and parts of the Chinese government, and of course it's why we also support industry in their direct engagement and response to the particular technical requests of what China has raised with us.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, so you've talked about the other pathways. At this stage, is it your assessment that those pathways are the ones you're going to have to try and use because that minister-to-minister kind of interaction doesn't look like it's working?

Simon Birmingham: Well, not only are those pathways ones that we might have to use, those pathways are first and foremost the appropriate ones to use for the issues that have been raised. China’s-

Patricia Karvelas: And that's because the relationship has soured, right?

Simon Birmingham: Well, no, not necessarily. In terms of the issues that are there, the administrative authority for matters in relation to anti-dumping investigations, or the administrative authorities in relation to quarantine, customs and labelling procedures around beef exports are not the minister themselves. In the Australian context, I wouldn't be the one who would make such decisions about matters coming into Australia, nor in the Chinese context is the Minister necessarily the decision-maker. I'm eager to have a conversation with the Minister to demonstrate in part that the Government is putting every possible effort into addressing these issues to highlight some of the arguments to the Minister, and to seek assurances that the processes being applied at the Chinese end will be evidence-based and will give fair case to the Australian industry presenting their evidence and arguments in defence of their practices.

Patricia Karvelas: Australia had no warning about the suspension of export permits, no warning. Is Beijing mismanaging its relationship with Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that certainly is disappointing for Australian businesses and it creates a disruption to supply chains, not just in Australia but also in China in terms of contracts and supplies that those Australian businesses have with their Chinese counterparts, with whom they do very significant business. And so, we would much prefer circumstances where there was some degree of forewarning given, particularly to the businesses themselves — the four meat work processing plants in question here — so that if there are issues they need to rectify within a certain timeframe, they have fair and reasonable notice to do that rather than finding that their permits are suspended instantly.

Patricia Karvelas: But obviously, if we’re seeing this kind of action without any warning, it does demonstrate that the relationship must have soured for that to have happened, but you've been dismissing that, saying it's not about that, these are technical issues. That doesn't really pass the pub test, does it?

Simon Birmingham: I've simply highlighted what the Chinese Government has said both publicly and privately in relation to these matters, that they are technical issues in relation to trade practices and processes, that they relate to matters that have been ongoing or under investigation for periods ranging from 12 to 18 months. And so, they have said that. We have to respond as best as we can in good faith in putting forward the arguments that address those technical issues. If we're being told they are the reasons why these permits have been cancelled, or in relation to the barley dispute, here is the process that it’s being assessed under. Well, the first port of response for the Australian government rightly is to engage in good faith, comprehensively, using evidence to refute any of the arguments that are being put within those processes.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, Australian wine and dairy producers are now worried they could be next, as you know; what reassurances do you have that that won't happen?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I would hope and trust that every Australian exporter will firstly understand that the issues around labelling requirements and quarantine and customs processes are such that everyone at present should be, as they always should, dotting their I’s, crossing their T’s, ensuring that they leave no scope for any grievance to be raised about their ability to meet the standards they’re expected to meet to be able to export into any other country or market with which we have had agreements for that export to take place.

More generally, I can see no justification as to why any of those industries need to have any cause for concern. As far as I'm aware, they are all meeting the requirements and operating within the terms of agreements that we have in place, and overall our trade relationship, even through the course of this year, has seen growth in export value, growth in export dollars and growth in opportunities. Not across every sector. Some, such as wine, have seen a downturn, and that's of course because of the cancellation of the Chinese Lunar New Year period in the lockdown, but in other sectors we’ve seen stronger growth. And not just to China, but to a number of other export markets as well.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, the Indonesia free trade agreement comes into effect on 5 July. Will that give our producers more alternatives if China becomes harder to sell to?

Simon Birmingham: As I referenced in my previous answer, our last lot of export data for the month of March saw growth in a number of key markets; Japan, Republic of Korea, US, UK, as well as Hong Kong. And I think we see new opportunities emerging in markets like Indonesia. The Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is something that we have worked on for a long period of time. Governments of all political stripes — for frankly, decades — have sought to deepen economic ties between Australia and Indonesia and we will now from 5 July have 99 per cent of Australian goods entering Indonesia tariff-free or under very preferential arrangements. A big opportunity for exporters, 5000 tons initially, of feed grain product, including potentially barley, able to enter duty free into Indonesia, growing each year. Meat and cattle opportunities within that agreement as well. So it does provide yet another new opportunity for businesses as each of our trade agreements we've negotiated have to date.

Patricia Karvelas: Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has attacked former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has had some things to say about this inquiry that's been called into- for China and the origins of coronavirus. The senator has said that it's another airhead comment from the couch, we had six years of Instagram diplomacy that ignored CCP, skulduggery and debt trap diplomacy. Pretty breathtaking. That is something she actually tweeted. What's your response?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, let me deal with both parts there. I don't agree entirely with some of the comments that Julie had made overnight, but I certainly don't concur with the remarks of Senator Fierravanti-Wells there. Our Government has taken a firm and consistent line over many years in relation to our policy settings. We've done so consistent with defending Australia’s values, consistent with protecting our national-security. And Julie and other ministers in different incarnations have played an important role in setting those policies.

Patricia Karvelas: What do you- I mean you've kind of gone there, but she's called her an airhead.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I don't think that's an appropriate approach in terms of public discourse at any time.

Patricia Karvelas: Senator Fierravanti-Wells is demanding Australia be paid reparations from China over coronavirus, should that happen?

Simon Birmingham: We've made clear our position, and that is that what is most important out of the COVID-19 pandemic is for the world to learn the lessons around how it happened, how it's been managed and how we can best prevent it from happening again and prevent a repeat in terms of the type of harm that's been caused. Now that’s why we're working with the European Union and others to have a transparent investigation driven through the World Health Assembly into COVID-19 and its handling. Because we had a situation where hundreds of thousands of people have died, millions of people have lost their jobs, billions have had their lives disrupted and the least the world should expect is there is a transparent process through which lessons are learnt to minimise the risk of repeat.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. There is a lot of free advice from the backbench and former politicians like Julie Bishop at the moment, would it be more useful for the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister to be leading this debate? It seems to be often filled by other people with opinions on China and the relationship.

Simon Birmingham: Well the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister are incredibly active in this debate and particularly of course in their engagement with world leaders. I think it's a responsibility of all of us to think about Australia's engagement with the rest of the world and to do it in a way where we are firm in the policy stances that we take, where we stand strongly in defence of our values and principles, but where we also engage responsibly and carefully in the way in which we approach debates and subject and language with other countries. And we never compromise on our values, we stand firm to our policies, but our style of engagement will always be careful and considered.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, so I have to put this to you, because the Victorian Treasurer has blamed inelegant interventions and a use of language to vilify China for the country’s decision to suspend beef imports from these abattoirs and also these tariffs that are being threatened on Australian barley. I mean this is strong language, vilify China, what do you make of the Victorian Treasurer’s remarks? Is that what's happened, here that China is being provoked?

Simon Birmingham: Well I don't think that type of remark helps anything either, establishing some sort of political blame game or the like. I would say to the Victorian Treasurer, what of the policy decisions that this government has taken over recent years in relation to protection of our national security or defence of our values and interests would you have opposed or would you have not taken? We've taken them all in a calm and considered way. Yes, Australia is a country with a robust democracy and with free media and free speech, and that means that we do see a lot of things said and done out there, but frankly I can also look at countries like China with a less free press and without a robust democracy like ours and a very different system, but if I look at what's written in their media sometimes, I equally find it to be occasionally a bit too shrill and occasionally saying things that I think are quite wrong and inaccurate when it comes to its reflection on Australia. So that's the pressure that exists at one level. It is for governments and the leaders of government in particular to be able to rise above that, and certainly the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, myself and the senior leadership of the Government all seek to do so and seek to engage in that more calm and considered way.

Patricia Karvelas: Arthur Sinodinos, who is now the Ambassador for Australia of course to the United States has said that he thinks that the trade relationship is mutually beneficial and ultimately that China will stay with that trade relationship. I mean that seems a very optimistic view, it is when you would hope for, right, but given China's actions in the last week, if we see another move from China, another trade repercussion, if you like, will it demonstrate a sort of pattern of behaviour? Will it demonstrate that there is something wrong?

Simon Birmingham: Well it wouldn't be helpful for me as Trade Minister to start trying to set hypothetical outcomes that if something happens then it demonstrates some sort of motivation or otherwise. What I would say in terms of Arthur’s comments is that we have to take a long-term perspective to the relationship. It is in both Australia's interests and China's interests for us to have a constructive and engaging partnership and that is why we have a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement in place. The trade and economic relationship forms part of that. It is not the only thing and it shouldn't be the only thing in terms of what drives our relationship, because we will coexist forever in the Asia-Pacific region as two significant countries in this region needing to be able to work together through a range of different issues. And our Government’s approach is — absolutely as I said before — to stand true to the values of Australia and to defend those values and to have firm policy positions but also to engage constructively wherever we can on those trade and economic issues, but on the broader nature of those strategic partnerships too wherever possible.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, thanks for joining me.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Patricia.

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