Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Mornings with David Bevan

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Chinese Trade Minister; Hong Kong; Balancing the relationship with China; return of international students, extending JobKeeper, Melbourne outbreak.
10 July 2020

David Bevan: Good morning, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning. David Bevan, good to be with you and good morning to your listeners.

David Bevan: Would you like to buy into who should be the next president of the United States?

Simon Birmingham: I was toying with what I’d say while I was sitting there on hold and I thought maybe I could say I’d love to see David Bevan have to put his money where his mouth is.

David Bevan: That can’t be hard. That can’t be that hard. Also we should get out of the way, your favourite Doctor Who?

Simon Birmingham: Pass, sorry. Not qualified on that topic.

David Bevan: Not qualified. Alright.

Simon Birmingham: Not a fan, must be something I’ll have to discover late in life.

David Bevan: Alright. Well, can you tell us has the Chinese Trade Minister returned your calls?

Simon Birmingham: No. We remain there in the same situation. We would like to have a discussion, to talk through some of the issues that are there. That has not been reciprocated, we continue to work through where we can at officials’ levels on those matters.

David Bevan: When was the last time your spoke directly to the Chinese Trade Minister?

Simon Birmingham: That’s a good question, David. I suspect it was late last year.

David Bevan: And has anything like this happened before, that we would just not communicate at the ministerial level.

Simon Birmingham: Yes. This has not been an unusual occurrence in various junctions over history. Now, as I say, from an Australian Government perspective we are open to having conversations and discussions, even where we have disagreements. And we think the best way to understand the rationale behind each other’s disagreements, and move past them, is to talk.

David Bevan: But the option at the moment is if there is an impasse on any particular issue regarding trade between our two great nations, you can’t cut through by just going straight to the top – it’s got to be sorted out at a bureaucratic level.

Simon Birmingham: Well, we communicate. Obviously I still send the odd letter to raise grievances and concerns, and we also communicate, yes, through a range of other channels that are utilised at diplomatic and other official levels.

David Bevan: Now, I want to ask you your thoughts on what’s happening in Victoria, and the way it’s being managed? And what do you think the ramifications are going to be for the rest of the country? But- and if you’ve, like, got a question or a comment that you’d like to put directly to Simon Birmingham, give us a call, you know the numbers. But before we leave China, it’s been announced that we have suspended extradition arrangements with Hong Kong. Why?

Simon Birmingham: Because the passage of the national security laws by China, by the government in Beijing that now applies over Hong Kong does have- does present a fundamental change to the possible circumstance that individuals would find themselves in in Hong Kong. Hong Kong operating as part of the one country, two systems approach with China has had a system that has given confidence around the independence of its judiciary, the approach to the rule of law in Hong Kong over a period of time. That confidence is somewhat shaken by the passage of these new national security laws that encompass the operation of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. And so that’s why we’ve taken the decision to suspend that extradition treaty, noting the heightened risks as to how people could be treated under it because of those new laws.

David Bevan: So does this effectively mean Australia has lost faith in the integrity and independence of the Hong Kong legal system?

Simon Birmingham: It certainly means that with these new laws put in place there is a threat there that we think warrants suspending that treaty. Overall, Hong Kong is, as a business or commercial destination, an important market. But one where, due to the tragic scenes we’ve seen over the last couple of years and the greater uncertainty and risks that attaches itself to Hong Kong, is probably less likely to be seen by many businesses as being as attractive in the future in offering the same stability in rule of law as it has in the past. That’s something that deeply disappoints us and many others around the world.

David Bevan: Why extend the visas of Hong Kong citizens in Australia?

Simon Birmingham: This is recognising that there aren’t- those change circumstances about which we were just discussing; reactions by a number of countries – Canada and the United Kingdom and others – to provide options for Hong Kongese people to be able to look at settling in other parts of the world. And in this case we’ve said that Australia could provide, in a proportionate way, support for limited numbers of highly talented individuals who are often already studying here or working here. And we’ve set this up as five-year work right arrangements for temporary graduate and skilled workers who are already in Australia, or an option five-year extension for students who are already in Australia, and that then provides a possible pathway to permanent residency for them at the end of that.

David Bevan: Okay. So, how will this work in practice?

Simon Birmingham: Well, in practice if you are a young holder of a Hong Kong passport who is already in Australia as- on a graduate visa, or on a student visa then you have an automatic right to the five years of working entitlement here. Then when you click over the relevant time period in your time here you can apply for permanent residency to stay.

David Bevan: Incredibly hard decision for a young Hong Kong citizen who’s in Australia at the moment to make. I was listening to one person on ABC Radio earlier today, and you could see the dilemma, you know, I don’t want to go back to Hong Kong when it’s a difficult place at the moment, but I don’t want to abandon my homeland – this is my town. I should go back and fight to make it a place it should be. Incredibly difficult decision.

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, a very trying decision and difficult time. That’s part of the approach we’re taking there. There’s almost 10,000 existing skilled temporary graduate or student visa holders of Hong Kong passports in Australia. And this really buys time, it gives them time to be able to continue to live and work in Australia, and to make their mind up over that timeframe, as to whether they will ultimately make that decision of applying for permanent residency. Circumstances may change significantly over the next five years; we can hope they may change for the better, in which case many individuals may choose to go back. If they change for the worse, well the Australian Government will obviously look at how we respond in those circumstances should they eventuate.

David Bevan: David has called ABC Radio Adelaide from Maylands to speak to the Federal Trade and Tourism Minister, South Australia’s Senator, Simon Birmingham. Good morning, David.

Caller David: Good morning guys.

Simon Birmingham: Morning David.

Caller David: Minister, hope this doesn’t sound too much like a Dorothy Dix question. But it must be incredibly difficult for the Government to balance our major trading relationship with China with the fact that they’re coming so authoritarian – we’ve got the Hong Kong thing, internment of the Uighur people in the west of the country, cyber-attacks on Australian businesses and government. How on earth, does the Government navigate this?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks David. It is a circumstance where we have to hold true to Australian values, and that’s why we have taken these sorts of steps in relation to Hong Kong, that we supported under the terms that the UK and China negotiated back in 1997. The creation of Hong Kong as a separate system within China, and the commitments that were made then. So, we continue to stay true to the views that we held then, firm in our values on matters of human rights dialogue and the like as well.

I think it’s important to keep a sense of both history behind us as well as the long term of the future in considering these issues. I say looking backwards, because if you look at matters of a human rights dialogue, these have often been matters of tension and difference between Australia and China, it’s not a new arrival in that sense, that concern over Tibet or other issues has arisen at different junctures. That hasn’t prevented us though from growing cooperation in other areas of the relationship, including the trading relationship.

As we look to the future, given the very different systems we have of government and the different values that are attached to those systems of government, there will no doubt be other points of difference in the future. But it still shouldn’t prevent us from trying to work in the areas where we can cooperate together. We share this region of the world, we are geographically tied together forever in that sense as co-inhabiters of the Asian region, and that means that we do need to continue to work in the areas of cooperation where we can, whilst not betraying our values or the Australian national interest at any time.

David Bevan: David, thanks for your call. On the text line: what makes Hong Kong any different from any other country with a totalitarian regime taking it over, whose people wish to escape it by coming here?

Simon Birmingham: The difference of Hong Kong is – as I just said in answer to David's question there – the reality of the commitments that were made at the time of the handover of Hong Kong from British rule, to again become a part of China, but to become a part of China under a very separate system and approach.

David Bevan: But at its core, at its base, this is about the rights of people to live freely and to not live in fear. Now, people are saying, what's the difference between us being so generous towards people who want to leave Hong Kong and those who ended up as asylum seekers in detention? Now, if there is a difference, can you explain it?

Simon Birmingham: David, I can understand the argument that's being put there. And clearly our refugee intake remains intact and untouched by this decision, and so people who are seeking asylum from circumstances that threaten their lives are still able to do that through all of the channels that existed before, and Australia continues to have one of the largest intakes of refugees of any country in the world.

This is a discrete decision that is being made, recognising the fact that people of Hong Kong not only have the circumstances of the commitments that were made around the handover in ‘97. But also that we do see an opportunity for Australia here, that these are often highly skilled, highly talented individuals, there may be opportunities for us to attract businesses from Hong Kong that will create more investment, more jobs, and more opportunities for people in Australia.

So, there is a compassionate element to this, if you like, in providing that choice and that opportunity for people from Hong Kong. But equally, there is also a benefit to Australia that we can see by targeting some of the skilled individuals who are already in Australia and giving them that chance to extend their stay, or by targeting businesses who may wish to relocate to Australia.

David Bevan: What if China responds with further trade sanctions?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that will be a matter for China. We would be very disappointed if that were the case. We-

David Bevan: But are you prepared for trade retaliation?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we don't so we don't think that our actions, which we think are proportionate and targeted, warrant that type of a reaction by China. We think that the trade commitments we've made to one another, both through China's ascension to the World Trade Organization a number of years ago, and then subsequent to that, through the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement ought to be honoured. And Australia certainly continues to uphold our end of the bargain, and we trust that China will do likewise.

David Bevan: But are you prepared for trade retaliation?

Simon Birmingham: Well we’ll continue to work wherever we can to extend the opportunities and choices for Australian exporters to seize markets elsewhere around the world. Just last Sunday a new trade agreement with Indonesia entered into force, and I did a large webinar with well around 1600 business and government types from across Australia and Indonesia about the opportunities of that yesterday. So that's about us continuing to create more choice for Australian exporters and businesses.

We've now hit 29 consecutive months where as a country we have exported more than we import. China is a large part of that, I have to acknowledge, but so too has been the growth in our exports to markets that we've had very long ties with like Japan over this period of time, as well as new and emerging markets like Vietnam and Indonesia that we're seeking to get even stronger growth in.

David Bevan: Let's move on of a pandemic. A listener wants to know, is there any chance of bringing any more international students back now that Melbourne is in lockdown again?

Simon Birmingham: The circumstances that have led Melbourne into lockdown are going to create additional hurdles in terms of handling international students coming back into Australia. We have been looking at opportunities to run some pilots for how international students might return in the same sort of way that, in the main, Australians have safely been returning to Australia by coming in and undertaking that forced supervised 14 day quarantine period whilst they're here.

Obviously, the Victorian Government's saw a breakdown in how that quarantine was being applied, and that has had serious consequences for Victoria and for the whole country. One of those consequences are discussions around the restrictions on international arrivals and how we ensure that the numbers coming in are of the volume that states and territories can maintain the high standards of quarantine that we expect of those international arrivals. So that's a topic for discussion at the National Cabinet today – looking at international arrivals, quarantine arrangements, and so on, and obviously having the highest confidence in the standards of those arrivals is a key prerequisite for any consideration of international students.

David Bevan: Now, a number of people want answers regarding the future of JobKeeper. We appreciate you're not going to tell us the chapter and verse of what's going to be handed out, but can you at least say to people it is clear that the JobKeeper payment, in some form, will have to continue after September? That's now clear, isn't it?

Simon Birmingham: You're right, David. I'm not going to give you the exclusive drop of Cabinets discussions this morning. JobKeeper is in place until September 27. We are working through a review process around that. I, the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, I think have all been very clear that, you know, we see sectors – and the tourism sector is a key part of my portfolio being the most obvious – that continue to feel enormous pain and will do so after that September 27 date. We are looking at how we ensure support is targeted to those businesses and those employees who are really going to continue to need it, whilst ensuring that we don't dig an even deeper hole for taxpayers that isn't warranted or is too open to rorting in any way.

David Bevan: Right. But can the scheme continue? Does the scheme have to be a national scheme?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, in the- yes, essentially it does. I think it is far more likely that adjusted at present, we have certain criteria that business has to meet for eligibility, including the decline in turnover. Those sorts of criteria frame and shape how a scheme like these best works, and obviously if some jurisdictions have more businesses who meet that eligibility then others well then greater support flows to them.

If you- even if you were to look at the current JobKeeper model in a hypothetical sense over the next six weeks, and you applied that 30 per cent reduction in revenue just for that six week period that Melbourne's back in lockdown. Obviously you would see far more Victorian businesses receiving support and employees receiving support than you would elsewhere around the country. So in that sense the model, as it currently stands, responds. But we've been very clear, we want to make sure that we get this right in terms of support for the future. And that also we will give very, very wide notice to people that by the end of this month we will have sorted out the details, made an announcement, and that will give at least, essentially, two months notice before the end of the current program as to what any new approaches will look like in the future.

David Bevan: Right. But that mechanism, it's actually a pretty good one in terms of seeking out where the support needs to go because it's based on a downturn in turnover. Whereas if you said, oh yeah, the tourism sector is doing it really hard. How would you pick the difference between a cafe in the city and a cafe out at – I don't know – in Clare, which is a tourist spot? How would you pick the difference?

Simon Birmingham: In that, David, or even the many businesses that rely on tourism operations – so there would be many businesses in Adelaide and elsewhere around the country who are audiovisual suppliers to the various convention centres across the country, those audio visual suppliers won't be seeing a lot of business happening in the convention centre market right now. There would be laundry services who supply big hotel chains across the country, and they're not seeing much laundry work unless they happen to be the hotels that are offering quarantine services. So, there's a range of different examples you can create that demonstrate that it's not just easy to narrowly target into one particular type of business, because there will be all of those others who rely upon that as part of the supply chain for that business.

They’re all the difficulties that we’re grappling with, at present, as to how we make sure, as I say, that support is targeted to where it needs to be. You know, this is coming at an enormous cost to future generations, you know, the size of the budget deficit that we’re running to be able to support the country through this pandemic. And deficits are there for the circumstances like this – if you can’t run a deficit in a once in a century pandemic, well when can you? So, you know, that’s the right response for us to be investing; but, we also have to make sure we’re prudent in that investment and that we try to deal with some of the concerns you hear at present. You had callers say that, you know, they’re struggling now to get some of their employees to come back to work under the way JobKeeper has been structured; you have others complain that too many people are receiving more under JobKeeper, than they were previously under their employment arrangements. So, there are a lot of different things that we're trying to iron out and work through so that, if there is to be support in the future, it is appropriately targeted and proportionate to the needs of individuals and businesses.

David Bevan: Has the Victorian Government stuffed up?

Simon Birmingham: Well, yes. Look, there’s clearly been stuff ups in Victoria and the failures at quarantine. The fact that even throughout this pandemic, South Australia we can be proud of the fact that that state has had amongst the highest testing regimes in the country. And that's enabled us to pick up on cases quickly and then to work through that tracing and that quarantining that comes to ensure that we don't see a spread throughout the community.

Victoria had much lower levels of testing and then has had these failures in quarantine and has got itself into a right royal mess, to use a colloquialism. And now we all want to get them out of that mess because it's bad for the whole country. That's why we've got 220 Defence Force personnel on the ground to help Victoria at present, another 150 will be there by Sunday. It's why Steven Marshall and the state government have sent people over to help with the testing and tracing activities, and similarly the New South Wales, the Tasmanian, the Queensland Governments have all also provided support.

So, people in Victoria and no doubt Victorian state opposition will spend their time trying to highlight the failures of Dan Andrews and his government. Our approach has been to put politics aside and just try to get on with working out how we help them to fix it and get back on top of it.

David Bevan: Even if they have stuffed up? Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time. I won't even bother to ask you John's question – he said: are you going to be the next Mathias Cormann? Because you would say: I’m happy to serve in whatever capacity the Prime Minister gives me.

Simon Birmingham: Perfect response, David. You should say you should run for President of the United States or something.

David Bevan: Senator, Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure. Cheers.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7420
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555