Interview on Afternoon Briefing with Patricia Karvelas

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: trade relations with China, flights into Australia, interstate borders, travel bubbles.
21 October 2020

Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, and also our guest. Welcome to the program.

Simon Birmingham: Hello Patricia, good to be with you.

Patricia Karvelas: Why has legislation for a federal anti-corruption body been sitting on the Attorney General's desk for almost a year? I know the Government says it is all about COVID, COVID has been the focus. But surely you can do more than one thing at a time, right? I mean you know you’re skilled people, there’s a lot of people working for the Government.

Simon Birmingham: There’s no doubt that the Government's priorities this year have firstly been keeping Australians safe and secondly been working on ensuring that their job, employment and financial circumstances are also kept as safe as possible. And I think all Australians appreciate and understand they have been the overwhelming priorities and for the Attorney General they’ve been pretty significant priorities as he’s grappled with a number of different changes through that time.

But also in terms of the work around the integrity commission, it is a piece of work that necessitates fair and reasonable consultation around how this is structured to make sure that some of the mistakes of some of these state systems aren't repeated, that complex issues are dealt with and in the middle of lockdowns and restrictions, undertaking those consultations was not really a feasible undertaking.

Patricia Karvelas: But you can do consultations online, on Zoom. The rest of us have been working online in different various different ways, why couldn't the Government go through a consultative process given the urgency of this issue?

Simon Birmingham: Well it was more urgent for the Attorney General to be dealing with the various employment and other matters that came before him as part of the pandemic and so that’s precisely what he was doing. But obviously we're still working through these matters. The integrity commission and ensuring that we have a model that is sustainable for the future that doesn't repeat some of those mistakes of state commissions that sometimes look more like show trials than actually serious bodies aren't repeated. What we want is to make sure that in terms of dealing with integrity, we build on the very strong and robust institutions that already exist at a federal level and then we get a model that is enduring for the future.

Patricia Karvelas: Sure. But with the benefit of hindsight and given the issues that are emerging at the moment, particularly in relation to the airport, the Western Sydney Airport, don't you think there is a sense of urgency here that the public expects this level of integrity and that with the benefit of- if you look back in time, actually having a consultation process that was had online would have been a good idea?

Simon Birmingham: Well let’s let those issues run their course. They are the subject to three levels of investigation; departmental investigation, an investigation by the Australian National Audit Office and an investigation by the Australian Federal Police. And that is a reminder that our system is not without strong checks and balances, strong investigative authorities that are able to get to the bottom of these sorts of issues already. And so yes we are-

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. But on that question of whether you should have consulted and gone through the process because this is a well-funded, well-resourced Government with departments with many people working in them, should the Government have gone through this process, consulting on a federal integrity commission this year?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, we’re working through those processes.

Patricia Karvelas: I know you are but should you have done more work by now? That’s really what I’m asking.

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, a lot of work has been done. It’s important that work is done thoroughly and properly. That’s what the Government will get on and do. All of those different agencies that we have as checks and balances on government powers, systems and structures, continue to do their work importantly. And I think Australians should be reassured that those systems, be they the work of the Audit Office, be they the work of the Federal Police, be they the work of the Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, there are a number of different agencies already operating at a Commonwealth level who provide a high degree of scrutiny and accountability.

Patricia Karvelas: Sure. But clearly they’re not good enough because you’re working on this so they’re obviously not doing the level of work that’s required because that’s why you’re pursuing this in the first place. So will a federal ICAC be legislated by the end of the year?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I think the appropriate degree of consultation and scrutiny means that we will keep working through that process and I’m not going to set an arbitrary time limit on it. That’s for the Attorney General to work through.

Patricia Karvelas: Sure but obviously- okay I know you're not the minister responsible, so I’m going to make that clear. But you are a very senior minister in fact you're going to take on the finance portfolio too so you're key in this decision-making process. Given events that have emerged and the Government's promise, do you think the Government should endeavor to legislate a federal ICAC type body by the end of the year?

Simon Birmingham: Well the Government will continue to work on the implementation of the integrity commission model that we have already outlined publicly, that we have been doing drafting work around the legislation of, that we will proceed consultation to make sure that we get difficult issues like questions of retrospectivity and so on, right, in terms of the model that’s brought forward. And when we’re confident in the model and the issues and that we’ve addressed those through consultation with relevant public service bodies, legal bodies and others relevant to this debate, then we’ll bring the legislation through the Parliament.

Patricia Karvelas: And is that going to happen this year?

Simon Birmingham: It’s going to happen when all of those steps are completed and we’re ready to do so.

Patricia Karvelas: Well when will they be completed?

Simon Birmingham: I’m not going to put an arbitrary timeline on it, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: Why not?

Simon Birmingham: As I say that is a matter for the Attorney General to have confidence in when he believes we’ve got a model that will work and be ensuring without repeating the mistakes of some of those state systems.

Patricia Karvelas: Alright. Let’s just park it because it’s not your portfolio but no commitment for this year. Are you comfortable with the Department of Finance using Michael Sukkar's old law firm to investigate allegations his and Kevin Andrews electorate staff were used for branch stacking?

Simon Birmingham: My understanding is that matter is that decisions in relation to legal advisors to help the department in their investigations there were taken independent of any political office within the Government. So they were taken by departmental officials, that they are using a law firm and individuals that in terms of the particular principle engaged who never worked with Mr. Sukkar, in fact never worked in the firm at the same time as Mr. Sukkar. So I’m confident that the department and the departmental officials in making their decisions there would have acted with the utmost appropriateness.

Patricia Karvelas: Have you been able to establish whether China has issued a formal or informal ban on Australian coal and cotton?

Simon Birmingham: So we have no evidence to suggest that there is a formal decision of the Government there to impede Australian exports in those sectors. We continue to undertake investigations at a diplomatic level and together with business and industry in terms of engagement to ascertain if there are pressure points or restrictions coming from a government level. And we would be very concerned if there was any targeting by way of discrimination against Australia that could in any way be a breach of China's obligations and commitments that they have made under the China Australia Free Trade Agreement or as part of their World Trade Organisation obligations.

Patricia Karvelas: Analysts think China may be using informal tactics to avoid violating WTO rules, what do you make of that?

Simon Birmingham: Well analysts are welcome to their commentary and of course we do look and read and where we think there are points of concern that our industry may raise with us as a result of what they’re seeing in market sentiment, that is where we then work with industry and through diplomatic channels to try to engage and seek clarification. As I said, we haven't got evidence on any formal decisions that have been taken. We are concerned by some of the market sentiments that have been expressed by industry players and that is why we are working with industry to try to understand and to try to get reassurance from China that no such discriminatory steps have been taken. And it is for China to answer or respond to some of those analysist’s claims.

Patricia Karvelas: Are you and the Foreign Minister trying to find a circuit breaker to repair the relationship with Beijing? Do you have a plan other than just trying to contact your counterpart? Obviously there hasn't been very successful.

Simon Birmingham: Well Australia’s foreign policy, our trade policy is one of consistency, and that consistency is that we value and want a valued partnership with China. We recognise that we have points of difference. We have always, as countries, had points of difference. We have very different democratic structures, very different governmental structures, but we also have common interests in terms of ensuring the peace and prosperity of the region that we share. We’ve welcomed the fact that by cooperation, including a growing trade relationship, it’s been beneficial to each of us, to China and to Australia and also to our region, in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the last couple of decades. And we continue to extend very much the open door policy, to ministerial engagement and dialogue and to work in those areas of mutual interest and partnership.

Patricia Karvelas: Should we brace for more trade retaliation from China over the decision to join India, China and the US in the Malabar naval exercises?

Simon Birmingham: Well that shouldn't be the case. Australia has-

Patricia Karvelas: But it will be the case. I mean I spoke to the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and he said, clearly, this probably will anger China. Not that it shouldn't happen but it probably will.

Simon Birmingham: Well it shouldn't. There’s no cause for it to do so. Australia has long collaborated in military partnership and cooperation exercises with a range of different countries. We welcome the fact that India has extended this invitation to Australia. We do so in the spirit of promoting peace and stability across the region and across the world in terms of all areas of our military engagement and cooperation. It should have no bearing in regard to our trade relations or indeed relations at all with any other country.

Patricia Karvelas: Will you be able to manage all of your portfolios? I'm asking this because I spoke to the Shadow Trade Minister the other day who said you’ve got too much on. Are you going to be able to manage all of these portfolios?

Simon Birmingham: Look, there’s going to be a small period where I hold the finance portfolio, as well as the trade, tourism and investment portfolio. We will work as hard as we possibly can during that period, determined to maintain momentum to the end of the year in relation to our trade negotiations with countries like the UK, with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement that we are determined to conclude and sign this year – and it’s one of the reasons why I was so eager to be able to stay in the trade portfolio – see it through until the end of this year to be able to deliver progress in some of these critical areas; and crucially, to continue working with our tourism industry until at least an appropriate handover point at the end of this year to make sure we keep driving the support for them through this tough times, especially as we’re starting to see further glimmers of reopening around borders and further movement of individuals that can help the tourism sector to get back up on its feet, which, frankly, is entirely complimentary in terms of the economic role that the finance portfolio has and the need to support a crucial industry like tourism.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. A couple of quick things. Let’s do them quickly. You and I can handle this. How concerned are you by the case of a Victorian reinfected with coronavirus? And what are the implications of how we manage the virus after this news?

Simon Birmingham: I’m not actually sure, Patricia. I’d love to help you with a quick response on that but I'm not actually sure of the case or question that you were asking me back there.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. There’s been a case – in fact, I’m going to talk about it with an epidemiologist – of a Victorian reinfected with coronavirus, and of course, that raises lots of concerns. But given you’re not across it-

Simon Birmingham: I think that’s definitely one for an epidemiologist ahead of me.

Patricia Karvelas: Yeah. But it will make it complex I think for managing the virus if people can get it again like this. Let's move on to something else then. Airlines have been very angry at the Federal Government. In fact, they are upset about uncertainty about how many passengers they can fly into Australia. They’re saying there are 32,000 stranded Australians, in fact there may be more, registered with the Government; want to come home but they say that the allocations and the information they have from the Government is uncertain. What’s your response to that, Minister?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve been working very hard to increase the number of available spaces into Australia by getting the states and territories to create more space in quarantine, and we’ve been successful there in terms of additional places that states and territories have opened up in quarantine facilities, and we thank them for doing that, which allows more people to come in. The decision in relation to New Zealand entrance into New South Wales, the Northern Territory, and now South Australia, again frees up more space in terms of quarantine for arrivals from other countries, and that’ll be very beneficial to again lift the numbers for flights coming into Australia. So, we’ve been working quite hard there and of course work around what’s possible at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory; all important steps to create an increased capacity for new arrivals into the country. And we’ll be making sure, as best we can, that airlines are then able to plan and fill as many seats as they possibly can, coming into the country. This has been a cooperative exercise, the Federal Government working with the states and territories.

The next big step in terms of creating capacity will be when Victoria decides that it is able to welcome flights again and to safely quarantine people again. Now we all understand the reasons why Victoria hasn't been doing that and the fact that its failure of quarantine was a core part of the problems that we’re all dealing with now around the outbreak and the second wave in Victoria. But when they can, that will provide again yet further capacity to help get people back.

Patricia Karvelas: I just want to talk to you about borders. Having a conversation with you without talking about borders is like what sort of conversation was it, so let’s just talk about borders. Should New South Wales lift its border restrictions on Victoria immediately?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I don't know about immediately. I hope New South Wales is looking at very clear plans to what trigger points will enable it to do so. I welcome the fact that I think there’s been more progress, even just in the last day or so, around regional Victorians and their access into South Australia, building on decisions that New South Wales has made around regional Victorians. And I look forward to the fact that we will see even more progress around people from Melbourne being able to access, at least in the first instance, perhaps with still quarantine requirements in place, but freer movement than has been the case. There are different steps that states can take, as they have, through the pandemic to date, which can include the at home quarantining or voluntary- or quarantining in self-determined facilities and they’re sensible staged steps that I hope we will see.

Patricia Karvelas: The Victorian Government will make an announcement on Sunday. They’ve made it clear. So, if there is more free movement beyond the 25 kilometres, do you expect New South Wales to follow closely after and open up that border given the infection rates are much of a muchness now?

Simon Birmingham: I hope that if New South Wales can have the confidence in terms of the health situation of Victoria, and the health officials working together can share that confidence in the advice they provide, then we always want to see borders opened up as quickly as is possible in a safe way to do so.

Patricia Karvelas: I famously detain you for too long, so let me keep doing it. What more can you tell me about plans to extend that travel bubble beyond New Zealand? What other countries will be added?

Simon Birmingham: Let's crawl before we walk there, Patricia. We do have to get the New Zealand one operating as a two-way arrangement. I welcome the fact that during her election campaign, Prime Minister Ardern made some positive noises about opening up in a mutual manner with Australia. When she’s got her Cabinet sworn in and is in a position to consider these matters, I hope that we can see her do so, if not with all Australian states initially, then at least with some, that can get a true two-way movement happening. Then we can prove up that model build confidence in the Australian community that that is going to be safe, dependable and reliable, and that’s when we’ll be able to extend discussions, as I know some Pacific Island nations are keen to do so with us; equally, of course, other countries who may have similar levels of success in suppressing COVID-19 as Australia and New Zealand have enjoyed in our region. And we’re open to have those discussions with those countries and to do so, but none of it will be done in a way that compromises the safety of Australians, because what we’ve shown is that by having the strongest or amongst the strongest health outcomes in the world, we’re also enjoying some of the strongest economic outcomes in the world. And so, whilst we want to open up as much as we can, we also have to make sure we preserve those health outcomes because that’s what delivers us the economic dividends too.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, thanks for joining me.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: That’s Simon Birmingham. He is the- well, he’s going to be the Finance Minister. He’s also the Trade Minister, Tourism and Investment as well.

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