Interview on Channel 9, Today, with Allison Langdon

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Australia-China relationship; Trade agreements; Working holiday makers.
10 December 2020

Allison Langdon: Well, China has upped its relentless attacks on Australian exports, freezing out lamb and hitting timber with new bans. And this morning, our cotton farmers are warned they could be targeted next. Minister for Trade, Simon Birmingham, joins me now from Canberra. Minister, thanks for your time. Anything other than iron ore left for China to ban?

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, this pattern of behaviour that we’ve seen throughout 2020, in particular, has been unacceptable in relation to the way China has engaged. It clearly is not in the spirit and we don't think the letter of the commitments China’s made to Australia, through our free trade agreement. But it’s not really in the commitment or in the letter or the spirit of the commitments they’ve made to the whole world, as a member of the World Trade Organization. And many other countries are watching what’s occurring here. Other countries have faced similar types of trade practices from China in the past and this just heightens the risk in terms of many businesses in choosing to trade with China, which is why we’ve done so much work in terms of opening up trade agreements with a range of other countries over recent years; Japan, Korea, Canada, Mexico, Vietnam, Indonesia and pursuing similar avenues with the EU and the UK.

Allison Langdon: I mean, that is all great work but nothing is going replace China and the size of that market there. But we’re also hearing now that dairy honey, fruit crops, they’ve all been mentioned.

Simon Birmingham: So, look, the China market is a very large market and it is why we continue to also be very clear that Australia believes that China should come to the table for dialogue and we should work through these types of issues and concerns. We’re not about to change in terms of our values. We’re going to continue to protect our national interest and our security, just as China does and as we would expect them to do so. But we ought to be able to work through issues so that the peoples in our two countries, the businesses in our two countries can get on with their trade and their business, without these types of disruptions. And we urge China to actually engage in that type of constructive dialogue.

Allison Langdon: But Simon, we know that that’s not going to happen. We’ve seen no sign of that. Other than waiting for them to call you back, what else are you doing here?

Simon Birmingham: Well, what we’re doing, as I said, is trying to help Australian businesses in pursuing other markets and that doesn't just involve the ones I’ve named. Of course, India, a very large market for which we have a comprehensive economic strategy in place, to try to grow opportunities for Australian businesses there. As we are right across South East Asia, where we’ve signed a new trade agreement that gives some more common rules and opportunities of access across the 10 different South East Asian markets that involve many of the Tiger economies. And in relation to China's specific actions, we are working to try to challenge and resolve those through every avenue available to us, including ultimately using the dispute resolution or independent umpire of the World Trade Organization

Allison Langdon: China says that they want you to do more to enhance mutual trust. Do you even
know what that means?

Simon Birmingham: Well, from my perspective and the Government's, the first thing you would do to enhance trust would be to sit down and talk to one another. We’ve been clear all year that we are willing to do that at the highest levels and we would urge China to come to the table. That is how you best build trust, is to actually engage in a dialogue.

Allison Langdon: You’re going to have to compensate Australian businesses here, aren’t you? They’re caught in the middle.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Australian businesses have made various choices over the year in terms of the risks of different market and also the opportunities there. Many are still successfully trading with China. But, yes, what we want to do is help those businesses access the range of other market opportunities that are available to them where they need to do that, and we’ve always encouraged them to seek growth. And we’ve seen that growth occur across a range of different countries in the last few years. It’s not just with China where our trade has been growing. With a number of other countries, we’ve seen strong growth in our exports. That's part of the reason why Australia has, for around 34 months in a row now, exported more as a country than we import. We’ve built a strong trade surplus through more Australians doing more trade, not only with China but with many other countries around the world.

Allison Langdon: But this must seriously concern you where this ends up?

Simon Birmingham: It is a real concern and that is why we have called it out, not just in the media here in Australia. Most importantly, directly with China, but also using the avenues of the World Trade Organization and we will defend the integrity of Australian businesses who don't dump their product, who aren't subsidised, who produce to a high standard and a high quality of safety and don't either deserve or warrant any of the types of targeted actions that we’ve seen from China this year.

Allison Langdon: Alright. Let's talk about a country that is taking your calls. You’re trying to get Kiwi to see come across the ditch and take up agriculture, hospitality and tourism jobs. Are these jobs that Aussies just don't want?

Simon Birmingham: Well, these are jobs that usually have a high number of working holiday makers, have backpackers filling them through the course of the year. At this time of year, we’d usually have around 135,000 backpackers here in Australia. That number’s down to about 50,000. So, we are hoping young Kiwis might see the opportunity to do a gap year in Australia or to spend a few months here, in doing so, to earn a few dollars but to travel around our country. Because we know backpackers usually spend every dollar they earn here, spend some that they’ve brought with them, ask mum or dad for a few more that they spend while they’re here. So they’re good for our economy and they also fill an important function in filling jobs, often in regional Australia.

Allison Langdon: You’ve got to talk to Jacinda Ardern too. When is she going to let us back into New Zealand?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I hope that happens very, very soon. Now, it’s up to the New Zealand Government. We respect their rights to make these decisions but we have opened up to welcome people here. One of the reasons why backpackers and working holiday makers is a target of this campaign, is because, of course, by coming for six or 12 months, we hope they will take the punt on the fact that borders will well and truly be open for them to get back home easily at the end of that.

Allison Langdon: Alright. Well, it’s last day of Parliament; do you feel a bit like a school kid celebrating the end of the year, Simon?

Simon Birmingham: Look, there’s plenty of work that’ll take us right through to the end of the year. 2020 has been an amazing and incredible one for sadly all the wrong reasons. But the good thing about this year is the way that Australians have responded with such resilience, with such focus to get us through COVID. We’re so pleased that the actions our Government has taken in cooperation with states and territories has enabled Australia to lead the world in suppressing COVID; for our economy to be stronger than much of the rest of the world and it's why we will continue to focus on especially those economic supports to keep the jobs growth. We’ve had more than 600,000 jobs come back in recent months and we want to keep that growth going to get all Australians back as close to where we were before as possible.

Allison Langdon: Alright. You enjoy the last day of school. Thanks Simon.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, cheers.

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