Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with David Bevan

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Australia-China relations, protests, JobSeeker, JobKeeper, Naval submarine program
12 June 2020

David Bevan: They will also be the numbers you'll need to ring or text on if you'd like to speak directly to Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade and Tourism and Investment - South Australia's most senior Liberal.

Good morning, Senator Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning David and good morning listeners.

David Bevan: Do you agree with former treasurer Joe Hockey that Australia's major political parties need to present a united front for China and not cower to bullies?

Simon Birmingham: I think unity in relation to foreign policy is very important and, by and large, we do manage to on sensitive issues of national security and foreign policy matters, I think, achieve a high degree of unity between both parties of government in Australia. And it is crucial for Australia to maintain a firm and steady hand in relation to the way in which we approach difficult and sensitive issues, it's important that we stay true to Australian values and hold firm to policy positions that protect our interests and when we do that within a predictable partner for other nations - and that predictability and steadiness is important in terms of all aspects of international engagement.

David Bevan: Hockey was, until recently, our ambassador to the United States. He says Beijing's recent behaviour is unacceptable. Are his comments helpful?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think it is obvious that the type of comments made by China's Ambassador to Australia have been unhelpful and so I think we can see there are issues there. The series of announcements that have been made out of Beijing over recent weeks is also most concerning, and particularly those that are based on falsehoods or inaccurate assessments. And so we have been very direct in calling that out, and it's unsurprising that others would do so too.

David Bevan: What's your message to China's Ministry of Education which has warned students to reconsider studying in Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Well all of our research shows that the vast majority of people choose Australia as a study destination, in part because of our safety and that their experiences here are positive ones, including their experiences around their safety and engagement with the Australian community.

David Bevan: And that's self-evident, isn't it? I mean, despite problems that might happen from time to time it's an extremely safe place and very welcoming. So what's China up to? Is this just payback?

Simon Birmingham: Well that's- look, it's a question for China and I think it will come through-

David Bevan: It's a question for you, you're the Trade Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Well, nothing good comes from me ascribing motivations to other people but we continue to make very clear that Australia is a country that's not only safe, but we also hold ourselves to a higher standard. I've seen in some of China's defence of this that they have quoted ABC News reports or Australian Human Rights Commission statistics.

But Australia is a country where we encourage people to call out instances of racism so they can be condemned, for people to report any type of violence so it can be investigated and reported - and where we keep statistics and we publish those statistics because we're a transparent nation. We have a free media here who will report those things and hold governments to account. And this is part of Australia's action as a country of high standards and holding ourselves to those higher standards that being a country with a free, liberal society and institutions to safeguard people's rights and freedoms are able to do. And that's part of what makes us one of the safest nations in the world for students or visitors to come to.

David Bevan: That's the voice of Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade and Tourism. If you'd like to put a question to him that might be about China, it might be about the way the federal and state governments are managing the pandemic, give us a call.

Senator Birmingham, are we any clearer on what needs to happen to wind back JobKeeper while maintaining it in targeted areas of the economy?

Simon Birmingham: We're closer in the sense that the Government will shortly kick off a review of JobKeeper which we promised to do this month. The Treasurer has indicated that it will respond to that review by early August and that will provide certainty for people in terms of what may occur from the end of September onwards. JobKeeper was stood up at very short notice to provide the emergency relief and support there, and we are now looking to the future. We want to make sure that we approach the wind down of it, or any extension of it, in a way that is able to be more carefully calibrated and responsive to where the real needs in the economy are than perhaps was possible at those very early days of the pandemic.

David Bevan: Will the JobSeeker return to its pre-pandemic levels?

Simon Birmingham: That is the government's policy and approach - that it will - but obviously our priority is on making sure that through our various Job Maker initiatives - be that skills training, other policy reforms, the things we were discussing last week about investment in the construction sector and so was to stimulate as many jobs as possible.

David Bevan: But there's a missed opportunity, isn't there? Simon Birmingham, everybody knows that JobSeeker was not much. It's very hard to survive on JobSeeker. It was increased during the pandemic and you're going to send people back to what's virtually poverty level stuff.

Simon Birmingham: David, we did put in place the temporary increases. They are in part of our stimulus to try to ensure that people are able to spend more. They were also in part recognition that some of those casuals, who wouldn't be eligible for JobKeeper, received an equivalent type payment - not exactly the same but they're getting closer to the same in this temporary period. But hopefully, again, we're seeing those casuals able to get their jobs back as the economy reopens and go back onto their normal wages.

David Bevan: Martin has called ABC Radio Adelaide Good morning, Martin.

Caller Martin: Good morning, David. I've got a question for Senator Birmingham as a representative of the government. A week or two ago we had a statement about Hong Kong from Australia, the UK, the United States and Canada, but New Zealand was missing from the Group of Five close security allies. I'm just wondering what's the government take on the fact that New Zealand didn't put its hand up as well.

Simon Birmingham: I think, Martin, well, it was actually a statement from three - so it was Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom who issued that particular statement in relation to Hong Kong and the proposal for China to implement new security laws that we see as being in breach of potentially some of the commitments gave when Hong Kong was handed back to China.

And the three of us as likeminded countries made our decision based, in part, on the fact that we have significant expatriate communities there; we have significant investment ties between our countries and Hong Kong; and that we see the importance of Hong Kong to the world and also to China in that sense.

Now, it's New Zealand's decision as to whether or not what statements they've made and I can't say that I have checked on that - that's really one that I'm sure the Foreign Minister is on top of. But I haven't checked New Zealand's public statements. I'd be surprised if they had been silent though.

David Bevan: Glenn, good morning.

Caller Glenn: Yeah good morning, David, and good morning, Senator Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Glenn.

Caller Glen: I can see you're one of the most even-handed of all the ministers, of all we have. You're even handed about things. But can't you understand in the Government that the reaction of the Chinese situation? I mean, your media- your feed from the media and your prime minister is basically very pro, and quite rightly, against a lot of things China does - but I don't hear the same things about Mr Trump. And to say that there is not a reaction in the Australian public caused by the media and caused by politicians that are anti-China totally, is ridiculous. Because there is a feeling within the community - I live in it, and I feel it, I see it. I like you to answer. Just let's be more even-handed about when America has problems, let us talk about that as much as we talk about China's problems.

Simon Birmingham: Well thanks Glenn. I mean, we don't tend to talk about the problems of other countries at a government level. As a free society, we do plenty of that and I hear lots of criticism of President Trump across Australian airwaves, just as I hear lots of concerns about China's actions at times across Australian airwaves - and that's as I would want it to be in Australia. As a government we're pretty measured when we comment on matters of other countries and we only tend to do so where there's a relevance to Australian interests.

So, if a country acts in ways that we think are contrary to Australian interests - be that consular cases involving Australians who were detained, or be it investment decisions, or things that could threaten Australian investments or trade activities - then we speak up. And if it's something that threatens regional stability, for example, we speak up. And so, it's in those areas that, as a government, I think we issue calm and measured responses where we see that occur - whether it's from any nation in the world. It's just that some obviously act in ways that cause that to occur more often than others.

David Bevan: Do you expect there'll be decisions from the State and Federal Cabinet today regarding the opening up of borders?

Simon Birmingham: I hope so. I really do hope so, David. Whether there is, look, I've seen some positive commentary and signals, I think, out of South Australia and I think Steven Marshall is obviously looking at where he can go and I urge him to look at taking the first steps of opening up South Australian borders so that we can see more tourist, visitors, more business visitors getting back into, not just our tourism areas but also doing trade and engaging in activity that stimulates jobs and the economy in South Australia. And I want, hopefully, all states to find a pathway forward to-

David Bevan: But you'd be expecting an announcement today that South Australians will be able to travel to Tassie, or the ACTU, or WA, Northern Territory? Something like that?

Simon Birmingham: Well that's- I mean, that's in the hands of all of those other state premiers. Steven can only control who comes into SA, not who goes- not who's let into other states or under what terms they're allowed into those other states. I hope the National Cabinet today can see the state premiers find a common pathway forward. But if they can't find a common pathway forward then I would still urge each of them to look at what they can do to continue the process of opening up their economy.

But let's be really clear here that every single state of Australia has achieved remarkable success in suppressing the spread of COVID. Now, South Australia is a standout amongst the pack - no doubt there - with, as I understand it, no community transmission cases since 20 March in SA, and essentially, no cases barring, I think, two isolated one-off incidents for many weeks now. But the other states have all had remarkable progress as well, some are even in an almost identical position to SA. And the two big states also now have very few new cases being reported each day and are also occasionally recording no new cases. And so, we should applaud the success we've had in suppressing the spread and to try to get people back to business and back into their jobs.

David Bevan: ABC Insiders host David Speers says the Prime Minister's rhetoric has shifted on the Black Lives Matter protest. Here's a little bit of something that David posted yesterday.

[Excerpt]

David Speers:  The PM went beyond expressing health concerns today - well beyond. He started arguing the toss over why people were marching at all, attacking the motivations of some. He said it was fair to raise concerns about Indigenous incarceration rates, but that's as far as it should go. He sought to draw a line around this issue. He's clearly not comfortable with the debate spreading into deeper problems of systemic racism, entrenched racial disadvantage and historic dispossession. The prime minister says people should not, in his words: go nuts on this stuff. The statues of slave traders have come down this week in London. Scott Morrison, the Member for Cook, has strongly defended statues to Captain Cook remaining firmly in place. He even went as far as telling Radio 2GB this morning, there was no slavery in Australia. Well, the reality is, there was.

[End of excerpt]

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, do you think people are going nuts over this stuff?

Simon Birmingham: I think there's a small fringe who sadly seek to create division and do, in a sense, go nuts in terms of trying to fuel the flames of division through three these sorts of issues - and they exist on both extremes of the political spectrum. And the last thing that I want to see is for Australia to go down a path where that division is fuelled in ways that we see play out in the United States.

I want us to honestly acknowledge as a country that, yes, there are instances of racism and we canvassed that before as to how as a country I think we, you know, work hard to condemn that, to call it out and to try and improve that. There are still areas of injustice that occur in terms of lack of equality in some ways, and that's why we work so hard in terms of the Closing the Gap targets to try to address, for our Indigenous populations, those gaps, and for other disadvantaged cohorts.

And- but they're complex issues as well, there's no single silver bullet. And I see lots of those on the extremes protesting at present, sometimes protesting without a particular objective in mind as to what they think the policy actions need to be. They're- I understand, the concerns.

I think David Penberthy puts it very well and the Tiser today – if I'm allowed to mention a competitor – but where he acknowledges the challenge for police and for others in terms of managing the issue of these protests. And I would certainly urge people this weekend to not participate, to not go out and engage in these sorts of protest activities, to find other ways which are entirely possible to make your views known-

David Bevan: Did Australia have slavery?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I wouldn't necessarily agree with Speersy that Australia has, or had slavery per se. Obviously, convicts who came out here in different ways worked under conditions that would be intolerable today-

David Bevan: No, he wasn't talking about convicts slavery. He was talking about what was going on in the stations, outback stations, what was going on in New South- in Queensland on the cane fields.

Simon Birmingham: I think in terms of the way in which we look at slavery of people being bought and sold – I'm not sure that I'd- I'm not going to pretend I'm a historical scholar in this space, but I don't think I'd accept that context. But obviously, the treatment of individuals, the way in which they were engaged in work conditions 200 years ago, even 100 years ago are vastly different from what we would accept today, and do accept today. You know, we have a much better society today that is much more tolerant, much more inclusive than it was. It's not perfect and it's a job that'll never be finished - we will always have to work to continue to improve those standards.

David Bevan: Mark has called ABC Radio Adelaide. Good morning Mark.

Caller Mark: Good morning, David and good morning, Senator.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning.

Caller Mark: Thanks for taking my call. Yeah. I don't have a question. I've just got a suggestion to do with the Job Maker thing. Well, Perth and Adelaide have been in contest over getting the contract to fix up the Collins-class subs, why not let them both have a go? Ramp it up a bit? I think out of a dozen submarines, I think there's only two that actually are operable, and the French ones a very, very long way off, and that would create a lot of jobs straightaway. And if they want to compete, they can see who can do the job the fastest. That's it.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. We do only have a relatively small fleet of Collins-class submarines. Great strides have been made in recent years to have most of that fleet available to go out to sea for naval operations at all times. So, it's not accurate to say anymore that there are only two of them that are operational - most of them are most of the time. And that is a credit to the hardworking people down there at Osborne who have turned around some of the operational difficulties that exist with the Collins-class.

It wouldn't be feasible for both of the shipyards in Fremantle and in Port Adelaide to do the same type of work on a small fleet like that. You only have one vessel, usually, receiving major overhaul at any one point of time. Things in the works at present is that in Freo where they are based, minor sustainment activity and operations occurs and then they come to Adelaide for the major overhauls. The question that is being worked through is, as all of the extra jobs and activity are created down at Osborne by building the future frigates and by building the new submarines, is there also space, workforce, et cetera to continue with the major overhaul work on the Collins-class while we build the new fleet of Attack class?

Now, that assessment work continues in government to make sure that we get the optimal outcome for our Navy. My view is that if, as long as the land, facilities, skills to doing all of the required work is there, is available there are at Osborne, and it can be done as effectively and cost effectively well then that's where it ought to continue to be undertaken.

David Bevan: Now, you've got to leave at 28 past nine. Bill has called from Semaphore. Good morning, Bill.

Caller Bill: Good morning, gentlemen.

Simon Birmingham: How are you Bill?

Caller Bill: You know, there's an area of the world called Tibet. Now, China has said that that name no longer exists - Tibet is now just the province of China. And every time that somebody mentions the word Tibet, they say if you don't want someone to recognise China's hold on Tibet; don't trade with us. Virtually, that's what they say.

David Bevan: What's your question Bill?

Caller Bill: They're so racist; they accuse Australia of being racist. Our racism doesn't go anywhere near in equal what China has done to their Muslim population and to the Tibetan population.

David Bevan: Bill thanks for your call. Simon Birmingham, Trade Minister, you want to buy into that?

Simon Birmingham: I'll reiterate the point I made at the start, David, and that is that Australia holds ourself to a much higher standard than nearly any other country on the planet, and we should be proud of that and we should continue to do so.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. Cheers.

David Bevan: Minister for Trade and Tourism and Investment, South Australian Senator, Simon Birmingham.

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