Interview on ABC Radio, AM with Sabra Lane

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Licence suspension of Australian beef processors; COVID-19 inquiry.
13 May 2020

Sabra Lane: The Federal Trade Minister is Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham, good morning, and welcome to AM.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Sabra.

Sabra Lane: You've sought urgent talks with your Chinese counterpart over this snap decision to ban meat from four abattoirs. Has he agreed?

Simon Birmingham: Not at this stage, but the Australian Government is always willing to engage, and we will certainly work day and night using every process we can, both diplomatic and the technical processes to argue strongly the case in favour of our barley producers, our beef producers, and all of our exporters.

Sabra Lane: How soon do you want to talk with him?

Simon Birmingham: I'd welcome a discussion as soon as possible and at any stage. But ultimately these are technical processes, the equivalent of Australia's anti-dumping commission undertaking this investigation into the barley sector. These are technical issues in relation to beef labelling, customs and quarantine procedures, and they've all been running for a period of 12 to 18 months. And so we will work through each of those technical processes as well and put the most compelling, strongest, and evidence based case on behalf of our farmers.

Sabra Lane: Is this an undeclared war over Australia's push for an independent inquiry into how the coronavirus pandemic started?

Simon Birmingham: Chinese officials, both publicly and privately, are adamant that these are unconnected, and so it's in the best interests of our farmers and exporters for us to treat these issues all on their merits. And certainly from our policy perspective, these are completely unconnected issues, that quite transparently an investigation around the handling of COVID-19 has no relationship whatsoever to Australian exports of beef or barley.

Sabra Lane: Australia is the only country to have received two trade threats like this from China since the pandemic started. Looks like retaliation, it's very curious timing.

Simon Birmingham: Well I think there have been a number of unhelpful events, such as the comments of Ambassador Cheng that obviously provoke a lot of commentary around whether there is a motivation behind this. But we can only work in putting our best foot forward as a government in being firm around Australia's policy positions as strong in defence of our values as a nation, but seeking to engage respectfully with a valued partner like China and to treat their processes with respect by engaging with them, by providing the evidence that they seek, and we hope that they will make an evidence-based decision. And if they do, then there should be no cause for duties to apply to our barley exports in the end, and the evidence is very clear that our barley producers are nothing but competitive, productive, and efficient, and they certainly do not receive significant government subsidies.

Sabra Lane: Dairy producers are worried that they will be next, and they're seeking a meeting with the Federal Government right now. How worried should dairy producers be, and perhaps even the wine sector?

Simon Birmingham: There should be no cause for action in any of those areas. And we will continue to defend the interests of our exporters. We've been very clear, we're not about to change our policy positions under any threats, suggestion, or otherwise of economic coercion. It's important that the Australian Government stands up for Australian values, Australian interests. We protect our security, we protect the public health of Australians, but we also work to have good, cooperative, engaging relations wherever possible with our partners throughout the world and the region. And China is obviously a very important part of that mix.

Sabra Lane: Well if there is a sudden third strike in another export area, what are we to conclude?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I don't think it's going to be helpful for Australia's Trade Minister to engage in hypotheticals. My job is to put forward the best, strongest case for Australian exporters, and that's precisely what our officials will be doing, and I'll be doing, in making sure that China gets the evidence it seeks. And we hope and trust they will act on that and make an evidence-based decision. And that's obviously what we can then form a judgment upon.

Sabra Lane: How important will China be in Australia's economic recovery after the pandemic shutdowns, noting that the Global Times, Chinese newspaper overnight has said that these suspensions should serve as a wakeup call for Australia to reflect on its economic links with China?

Simon Birmingham: Once again, those sorts of threats or suggestions of coercion to somehow change policy position are not things that the Australian Government responds well to. And I see unhelpful commentary in Australian newspapers from times, in Chinese newspapers from times. It’s for governments to rise above that. Certainly I seek to, and our government seeks to, and what our ambition is, is to have that productive, constructive partnership with China to work through any issues in a sensible way, and that's why I am eager to have and open to talks with my Chinese counterpart at any time to have that constructive dialogue. China is an important partner economically, but they're not our only important economic partner, and we will see Australian businesses, no doubt, pursue trade opportunities and export growth in a range of markets. And our most recent trade statistics showed that notwithstanding the impact of COVID-19 around the world, Australia recorded a record trade surplus once again, and strong trade growth, strong export growth into many, many markets around the world, including a number with which our government has negotiated free trade agreements.

Sabra Lane: And to be clear, Australia won't push back on its pandemic inquiry push?

Simon Birmingham: Well the arguments for an inquiry around COVID-19 are quite compelling. We will support the European Union in their motion that they will be putting to the World Health Assembly. We’re one of many countries around the world who will do so, and I'm sure we all do so, because hundreds of thousands of people across the world have lost their lives, millions of people have lost their jobs, and billions of people have had their lives disrupted. Surely an inquiry to ensure that in the future, we are better equipped to either avoid a repeat or to minimise such impacts is an obvious thing to do.

Sabra Lane: Simon Birmingham, thanks for talking to AM.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sabra. My pleasure.

Sabra Lane: That's the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham.

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