Interview on Channel 10, The Project, with Carrie Bickmore, Rachel Corbett and Waleed Aly

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Australia-China trade relationship.
13 May 2020

Carrie Bickmore: Trade Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now. Welcome, Minister. Isn't this the worst possible time to be provoking China?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Australia's a country that always has to stand by our values and make sure that we’re acting in ways that are in our national interest. Now we are not seeking to provoke anyone. The actions the Government's taken over the weeks have simply been to say that the globe deserves an investigation into COVID-19 and that's a pretty logical argument to say when millions of people have lost their jobs, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives right around the world, and we should all want to learn lessons from this and make sure we that don't see a repeat of it. But that is a completely unrelated factor to matters of trade or matters of economics and what we just want to see there is that each of us deals with these issues on their merits. That's the approach the Australian Government takes, and it's the approach we urge all countries to take.

Waleed Aly: Sorry, Minister, you say it's unrelated, are you saying it's just a coincidence that we have been pushing for this inquiry and now China has responded in this way? These are just completely unrelated events?

Simon Birmingham: No. I'm saying Australia sees no relationship between trade policy enforcement or trade policy matters and an investigation into COVID-19.

Waleed Aly: Okay that’s…

Simon Birmingham: …and we certainly don't conflate the matters. We don’t see them as being related.

Waleed Aly: Sure, I understand. But China apparently does, at least it seems that way from this distance. Do you think in hindsight it might have been better for Australia to work with other nations around the world behind-the-scenes and maybe get a country that wasn't taking all the risk of some kind of retaliation with China, to be pushing an inquiry like this?

Simon Birmingham: Well we are working with countries around the world and in fact, the resolution to establish an inquiry will be moved at the World Health Assembly by the European Union with Australian support, with the support of many other countries. So this is something that we have working on with many partners.

Waleed Aly: I appreciate that. But we’ve been out the front, we kind of spoke out to the world and said, hey this would be a good idea. What we could have done is used those contacts, for example, in the European Union, and they could have been leading the charge rather than us taking the heat?

Simon Birmingham: So the European Union are leading the charge in terms of the role that they are playing. Now, Australia should be able to have a policy position and to stand by our values and to stand by the national interest of Australians, whether it's on national security issues or public health issues, without fear of economic coercion in any way. And certainly we will respond thoughtfully, respectfully to China on the issues they've raised around beef and barley. And they have publicly and privately said that these are technical matters that have been in the making for 12-18 months in terms of investigations and compliance issues. So we'll respond to them in good faith, addressing those compliance issues, addressing the economic arguments, and I hope that they will make their decisions based on the evidence as it relates to those issues.

Rachel Corbett: If it is a response to a call for an inquiry at a time when we’re in the middle of something that’s unprecedented in most of our lifetimes, do you think that China is being a little overly sensitive to that?

Simon Birmingham: I would hope that every nation, including China would want to work to prevent a repeat of COVID-19 in the future or if we do see an outbreak occur again, to know that we are better placed to handle it in the future. And so, nobody should have anything to fear and everybody should have something to gain from learning the lessons out of this pandemic and being better prepared for the future.

Carrie Bickmore: Have you been able to secure a meeting with your Chinese counterpart yet?

Simon Birmingham: I haven't got a call scheduled at this stage. I would like to have a discussion with my Chinese counterpart about these issues. But that's not going to stop us from putting every single effort we can through technical means, through administrative means and through diplomatic channels to make sure that we argue a strong case, Australian barley producers don't dump product around the world at below market cost, they’re just actually really great, productive, effective farmers, Australia's beef industry produces high-quality reliable product. If there are labelling irregularities, we'll make sure they are addressed and we want to make sure these industries can just get on doing what they are good at, which is helping feed the world which Australia does so effectively.

Carrie Bickmore: Are they giving us the cold shoulder, is that why there is no meeting lined up yet? Bit of silent treatment?

Simon Birmingham: That is a question for them. What I will do is make sure that every channel that's available to me as Trade Minister I deploy, and that means using our embassies, that means using our officials and that means yes, reaching out at a minister-to-minister level. But if we take China at face value, they say that these matters will be resolved at an administrative level and so we'll make sure that we put in the most powerful case backing Australia's barley industry, backing industry's beef producers, outlining why it is that China can have confidence that they will receive high quality product, that meets regulatory requirements and is priced according to market principles.

Waleed Aly: Minister we’ll leave it there, thank you very much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys.

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