Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast, with David Bevan.

Topics: US election results, Australia-China trade relations, climate change.
09 November 2020

David Bevan: I spoke with Simon Birmingham, the Federal Finance Minister, earlier this morning. Really, what I wanted to do was get a handle on what a Biden Administration in Washington will mean for us, and I began by asking him this question.

[Excerpt]

South Australia's Senator, Simon Birmingham, who holds the lofty portfolios of Finance, Trade and Tourism, joins us now. Good morning, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David. Great to be with you.

David Bevan: Is the world a safer place now that there's been an election in the United States?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think the world, we hope, will see a peaceful transition of power in the United States - we have faith in their democratic institutions, their legal institutions. Australia has congratulated Joe Biden on being elected as the President and Kamala Harris as the Vice President. These are historic times. As the father of two young daughters, I myself am delighted to see the first woman to hold the office of Vice President, it sets a wonderful role model and example of yet another glass ceiling being shattered. But what matters most is, of course, is getting down to the business of cooperation in policy and implementation, and that's what we will do with them when they take office on 20 January. But until then, we'll continue to work as we have, constructively and effectively with President Trump and his team.

David Bevan: But how do you think the world has changed?

Simon Birmingham: Look, every US president leaves their mark in different ways, there's little doubt about that. I'll leave it to the historians to perhaps write the history books in time about what this moment means and how things change from President Trump to President Biden. Transparently, they have very different ways of going about their business in engaging the electorate, but what matters is, from our perspective, how they engage in the Indo-Pacific region; how they engage in international fora; where we can pursue areas of complementary policy. And the Australia-US alliance has withstood many changes of governments on our side of the Pacific and on theirs, and I've got no doubt that that another new positive chapter will be written under President Biden.

David Bevan: How will this help or hinder us with China?

Simon Birmingham: We hope to see the US administration engage in the Indo-Pacific in a way that pursues both security, strategic as well as economic objectives. We would urge, as always, the two biggest economies in the world to have constructive dialogue. We were very concerned at different junctures with the trade tensions between the two. The US is a force for- peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific is very important to us from Australia's perspective - China is our largest trading partner, the United States is our largest investment partner. Together, we seek to work across issues with both of those countries. We don't always agree with either of them on everything, but it's about navigating what can sometimes be challenging times - we've seen that lately on certain trade issues with China. And hopefully the US can engage, through the World Trade Organization, in a constructive way under Joe Biden, and engage in other ways that that help to achieve respect for all of the rules and norms that we wish to see in the future.

David Bevan: But you've had a very difficult time with China - everybody knows that. When I say you, you as Trade Minister, but we as a country have had a very difficult 12 months with China. Do you think a new administration in the United States is going to help that? I mean, you must be sitting around and talking to your top bureaucrats, saying: hey guys, what does this mean? Because I've got to go to work on Monday and try and cut a deal with China, and they're not picking up the phone. Is this guy, the new guy in Washington, going to help, or hinder, or make no influence at all?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Australia's relations with China are Australia's relations with China - they're not the United States' relations with China - that's for the US Administration. And so, we and China are predominantly responsible for how the two of us conduct our engagement. I would wish that China was willing at present to have a proper ministerial engagement and dialogue, and it's disappointing that they don't. But that's not impeding our efforts at least to try to work and resolve some of the other difficult issues that have come up. And yes, you're right, David, we do have challenging circumstances in a number of areas of the trade relationship at present.

Not all of the rumours that have been flying around have been proven to be true, despite widespread talk of total bans on Australian imports and so on. We've been monitoring closely and we see products still flowing over the course of the weekend, and that's welcome. And I hope that over the long term China statements that there was no such comprehensive ban being put in place are proven to be true, and that our exporters continue to be able to successfully get their goods into market.

David Bevan: It's extraordinary to hear you talk like that, isn't it? You must be in a very difficult position. You're saying, well, that all these sorts of claims were being made, but yet we see product flowing across the border to China. Because they're not talking to you, how do you find out what's working? Do individual companies just have to say to you, well, I got my wine in?

Simon Birmingham: Well, in terms of monitoring the live effects of what is actually happening, we are monitoring the physical flow of trade, if you like. But really, we have dialogue through ambassadors, through officials at a range of different levels, and so China had given, prior to last Friday, assurances both privately through those sorts of channels, and publicly through the comments of their Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespeople, that there was no such comprehensive ban in place. Now the proof is always in the action, and that's why we are monitoring closely those, those physical flows of goods - welcome the fact that they are continuing to flow. We remain committed to this this relationship, which has been good not just to both our countries, but the whole region that we share. And whilst we may have our differences from time to time, the Australian government's view is that it is far better for the two of us to work in a complementary manner to pursue the areas of mutual interest and partnership, and we will continue to extend that olive branch to our Chinese counterparts.

David Bevan: Do you think things will get worse before they get better with China? Or have we seen the worst of it?

Simon Birmingham: This year has seen a number of decisions and actions taken in China that have the regulatory risk for Australian businesses in trading with China. Decisions by businesses as to whether or not to sell goods and where to do business are always a balance between risk and reward, and unfortunately this year, as a result of some of the anti-dumping decisions, some of the regulatory decisions that are seeing longer processing times that are unacceptably long for live seafood products like lobster, have heightened the risk significantly in some of those quarters. And so that is going to have an ongoing effect until some of those issues are clearly resolved. We will work as hard as we can through channels to try to get them resolved, but these are ultimately matters for China. Just as Australia is willing to have ministerial dialogue, it's China who is currently unwilling; just as Australia is willing to maintain the flow of trade in an orderly manner, it is certain Chinese processes that have disrupted that. And so what we hope to see is a breakthrough at some stage in terms of addressing some of these issues that can restore some confidence in parts of the Australian industry, and lower what has been a growing risk profile.

David Bevan: There's been much speculation that a Biden Administration will put increased pressure on a Morrison Government to do something more about carbon emissions. Do you agree?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Biden administration has, has indicated a return to the Paris Agreement, and that's something that we welcome. Australia, under our Government, has been resolute in our position and commitment to the Paris agreement - the United States chose to withdraw, we certainly didn't follow, we didn't support. We respect it's always the decisions of others, but we welcome the fact that a President Biden will come back, it seems, to the table in terms of the Paris Agreement. And importantly, we welcome that the policies Joe Biden has outlined during the US election campaign has been about large scale investment in technology and the transformation that technology can drive to our emissions profiles which are incredibly complementary to the technology roadmap that our Government has outlined to help us meet our Paris Agreement targets, just as we have met and exceeded to date all of our other commitments under, under the previous Kyoto Protocol.

David Bevan: But with- If you think of it as a classroom analogy, with the Trump Administration always being marked down for its performance on emissions, it made your Government look even better. Biden - the argument is that they will step up and do more, so we will have to step up and do more. Do you agree? We won't be the, we won't be the dumbest kid in the class?

Simon Birmingham: Well David, we're amongst the best performing kids in the class, if you want to draw that analogy. You know, we have, since 2005, reduced our emissions at a rate faster than the OECD average, at a rate bigger than the United States. So people should look very much at what Australia has done, and what we've done is, in the first Kyoto period, we met and exceeded the commitments we made. In the second Kyoto commitment period, we met and exceeded the commitments that we made by around 450 million tonnes of emissions reduction. And our ambition is to meet and exceed our ambitious commitments of 2030 as well. And under the Paris agreement, we will at an appropriate time down the track have to make commitments for 2035, and then for 2040, and then for 2045, and so it goes. So Australia has demonstrated that we don't just make promises, we deliver on those promises, and our intention is to keep doing that and hopefully to see other countries like the United States do likewise.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.

[End of excerpt]

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham is, of course, a South Australian Senator, but he holds the position of Federal Finance Minister and, importantly, Federal Trade Minister.

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