Interview on Radio National, AM with Sabra Lane

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: China, Business Events grants program; tourism.
11 September 2020

Sabra Lane: China's accused the Australian embassy in Beijing of obstructing its law enforcement, in assisting two journalists to leave the country earlier this week. ABC's Bill Birtles and Mike Smith from The Australian Financial Review swiftly left China after state security officers visited their homes in Beijing and Shanghai, warning they were persons of interest in a national security case. It sparked a five-day standoff with the two staying in diplomatic protection, the men were banned from leaving China until they were questioned about detained Australian journalist, Cheng Lei.

Simon Birmingham is the Trade and Tourism Minister; we spoke a short time ago.


Sabra Lane: Simon Birmingham, good morning. Did the Australian embassy impede Chinese law enforcement officers?

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Sabra. Well, the Australian embassy provided the support that Australians would expect to be provided to Australians in trouble, particularly to journalists working in a foreign country. The embassy engaged diligently to ensure the safety of the two individuals concerned, but they also engaged cooperatively with Chinese officials to ensure the resolution of the matter, which included the opportunity for Chinese authorities to interview the individuals concerned.

Sabra Lane: Well, from the statement, China sees this as an obstruction, it says Australia's actions in organising the two journos to hide completely exceeds the scope of consular protection, and is in fact interference in a Chinese legal case. What's your response?

Simon Birmingham: Our view is that our officials acted appropriately, they ensured the safety of the two Australians involved and they resolved the matter diplomatically through discussions with Chinese authorities, which did provide those Chinese authorities with the opportunity to conduct their interviews, but also guaranteed the safety and the ability to depart China for those two individuals who are now safely in Australia.

Sabra Lane: The former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, says he has no doubt the expulsion of the two Australian journalists earlier this week was in retaliation for the raids on Chinese journalists and academics here. What's your response?

Simon Birmingham: People will draw all manner of conclusions. There are evident and concerning tensions in aspects of the relationship at present, including in relation to disruptions to trade. And these are obviously matters that we wish to see handled sensitively, and to ensure that we can cooperate and work together in the areas of mutual benefit and in a mutually respectful way.

Sabra Lane: Chen Hong, one of the Chinese academics who had his visa cancelled says the decision was incredulously irrational – his words. He's written about it overnight, he says he's been trying to actually promote a better understanding of Australia and he says that those who sympathise with China dare to speak up are being intimidated into submissive silence. They're pretty strong words.

Simon Birmingham: It’s very clear that our Government takes matters of potential foreign interference seriously, and we will continue to act in ways to deter any acts of foreign interference. But we do so transparently and accordingly, in conjunction with Australian law, ensuring that we abide by those processes. And the individual decisions really are matters for the relevant agencies in terms of the way in which they conduct their operations.

Sabra Lane: This could further spiral. So far Australia’s iron ore exports haven't been affected. How are you going to take the heat out of this?

Simon Birmingham: Sabra, it’s important to reinforce that Australia welcomes China's economic prosperity, and we want to continue to engage with China in a way that is mutually beneficial to both nations and is mutually respectful, and that we convey that message continuously to China – that we ought to work in manners that help to underpin the peace and prosperity of our region, and that- respect the sovereignty of all nations across our region, including each other’s.

Sabra Lane: Is there any more information about Cheng Lei and her treatment? And why she's been detained?

Simon Birmingham: No, Sabra, I don't have any further updates in that matter. Obviously, we continue to provide whatever consular assistance we can, both to her family, and to Cheng Lei herself. I note that at the time her matter became public her family did ask for people to be mindful of public commentary on the matter, and that they respected the processes that were underway.

Sabra Lane: To tourism, you've announced $50 million in grants to help business tourism get back on its feet through helping with conferences and events. Is that pointless right now, given so many states have closed their borders and they're showing no sign about re-opening them?

Simon Birmingham: Sabra, this isn’t for events that will take place tomorrow – it’s to enable people to start planning, planning that will run well into next year to be able to get the exhibitions market, conferences and events activities happening again. This is a sector that supports some 240,000 Australian jobs. You're right – 95 per cent of those conferences events activities are not happening at present, they've been cancelled for this year, but that's why we're looking to the long term. Because it's not just the conference halls; it's the builders who prepare the exhibits, it's the caterers, the cleaners, the audio visual technicians – and these are all jobs that are worth saving. And we want to make sure that people have confidence – particularly the businesses who exhibit these types of events – to book, to plan and to make sure they occur in a COVID safe way into next year to save those jobs.

Sabra Lane: If you want to generate spending and create jobs in confidence, why not issue general travel vouchers with specific time limits to encourage people to spend quickly? And if they can't use them, that they can be on sold to others. That would be very stimulatory.

Simon Birmingham: We're seeing enormous opportunity right now, and response from the Australian public embracing the opportunities to travel where they can. The June data for travel shows a big lift, a billion-dollar lift in relation to intrastate travel – that people in the big cities have been able – outside, of course, sadly those in Melbourne – to get out, to visit regions, to support local regional tourism operators, and that's really, really encouraging. Of course, what we need for people to support city based tourism – the airlines, the airports, the hire car companies, the tour operators who are all missing out, for cross-border travel to be able to occur again – and I hope the states can embrace hotspot definitions that will allow that to safely occur because they're the jobs that are really under pressure right now. It’s not a lack of willingness to travel by Australians, it's a lack of ability to undertake that cross-border travel.

Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for talking to AM.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sabra. My pleasure.

Sabra Lane: That’s Simon Birmingham the Trade and Tourism Minister.

[End of Excerpt]

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