Interview on Radio National, Breakfast with Fran Kelly

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Climate targets; Paris Agreement; China-Australia trade relations
09 November 2020

Fran Kelly: There is hope in Canberra that a Biden presidency will lower some of the tensions with China, which erupted again last week with those rumored trade bans on a wide variety of Australian exports, including wine and lobsters.

Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Trade and Finance. Simon Birmingham, welcome back to Breakfast.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Fran. Great to be with you.

Fran Kelly: Minister, the Government will soon be dealing with a Biden administration. Joe Biden says he'll lead an international effort to, quote: get every major country to ramp up their ambitions on domestic climate targets. Do you expect pressure from the US on Australia to lift our ambitions on emissions?

Simon Birmingham: We look forward to working with the US and a Biden administration to be able to achieve outcomes in terms of lowering emissions here, there and right around the world. And that is firmly our objective. It's why we're investing so much in our technology roadmap, and it's why we've remained resolute in our commitment to the Paris agreement. And we welcome the fact that the United States, under President Trump, has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement and we'll be at the table because clearly, as the world's largest economy, a major emitter themselves, we need American leadership to help the globe, to be able to tackle the challenge of climate change and address these issues.

And certainly, we are there working, investing in the technologies and the US being our number one investment partner in terms of two-way investment flows between our two countries, there's a huge opportunity for us with their promised investments under a Biden administration in climate change to be able to cooperate even more fully in terms of technology investment that will lead to transformation in our countries and across others.

Fran Kelly: Yes. Nevertheless, do you expect more pressure on Australia to amp up our domestic climate targets? I mean, with the US embracing carbon neutrality by 2050, that'll mean more than 70 countries are committed to net zero emissions by 2050, China by 2060. How is it in our international interest for the Australian Government to be the odd one out on this key target? That's the target on the table.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, every country has got to, first of all, get to the 2030 target. And now, Australia's got a pretty good track record, having met and exceeded our initial Kyoto target and our second Kyoto target in 2020. And what we've done is reduce emissions in Australia when compared against 2005 levels, by more than the OECD average of nations, by more than the United States. And so, our track record is one of doing. And what we want to see is other countries, through the types of investments that we've made and are making, also be able to do. We are committed …

Fran Kelly: Well what America now wants to see under a Biden presidency, is countries ramping up their ambition on domestic climate targets. The target on the table that countries are now looking at is the 2050 target.

Simon Birmingham: And the doing is what matters. You can set all manner of targets and the Paris Agreement, which we are committed to, has a clear target to achieve net zero in the second-half of this century. We've signed up to all aspects of the Paris Agreement, including that component of it and what we want to see is that target met as soon as possible. And so, our investments, our planning is all about being able to map the pathway to get there as soon as possible.

Fran Kelly: Well if you think we can get there as soon as possible, potentially earlier than 2050, why don't we just say 2050 and get on board with the rest of the world?

Simon Birmingham: Because, Fran, you've got to know how you're going to get there. And that is the investment the process that we continue to undertake. It's – you know, people usually attack politicians for making promises without knowing how they'll deliver on those promises. And you're sort of saying to me right now, why don't you just say: oh, yes, well, that'll be our target and away we go.

What Scott Morrison has been very clear on here is our commitment is one of ensuring that we have a plan and an investment roadmap and that we will seek to get there indeed as soon as we can. And we will continue to monitor the technology changes, the investment trajectories that are there that actually give us the best possible chance of delivering on that commitment whenever it is made.

Fran Kelly: I'm just really pointing out that Brazil, Russia and Saudi Arabia are the only other members of the G20 not committing to Net zero by 2050. And Joe Biden has already said that he will link climate change into America's foreign policy, security policy and approach to trade. Given America's our number one investment partner, as you just said, our third biggest trading partner, could this rebound on us, on the trade front?

Simon Birmingham: I think there's enormous opportunities, as I said before, for us to cooperate,
and do even more in the area of climate change mitigation and abatement, that the type of promises Joe Biden has made about a focus on technology is exactly the same as the type of policies that we have brought to bear around investing in the types of changes not just to our energy grid, but also the types of changes to other parts of the emissions profile, how we do manage to make sure that across areas of manufacturing, you drive down emissions without driving down jobs. And we're certain that Joe Biden's the type of leader who will want to see America have that type of focus just as Australia does.

Fran Kelly: Given your certainty and confidence, will you allow Zali Steggall's private member's bill on zero by 2050 to be debated and voted on when it's introduced today? It actually has built in an ongoing monitoring system, to work out where we're at, just as you were talking about.

Simon Birmingham: Look, that's a matter of management in the house. We've got quite a lot of Government business priorities as we continue to respond to the pandemic…

Fran Kelly: Well, do you support it though?

Simon Birmingham: … and the economic recovery necessary for the pandemic. I can't say that I've looked at the details of Ms Steggall's bill. I know that what we have as a priority this week is to get our JobMaker Legislation through and that is about helping to create hundreds of thousands more jobs, being supported across the Australian economy, and making sure that we get Australians back to work from what we can't forget and is right now still the biggest economic shock to the world since the Great Depression.

Fran Kelly: The Coalition Party room has a number of climate sceptics within it. Malcolm Turnbull said yesterday on Insiders, the Government's lost the cover provided by Donald Trump which means Scott Morrison can now stand up to the climate sceptics in the party room and in the Murdoch media. Will the new administration give your party more confidence to take on the Murdoch media and the sceptics in your party room?

Simon Birmingham: Well Fran, let's just, again, look at the facts. President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement. He was the democratically elected president of the US, that was his choice. But Australia did not follow. Australia stayed resolute, under Scott Morrison, previously under Malcolm Turnbull, to that Paris Agreement. So we've been very firm and clear in terms of our support for global cooperation. And unlike many other countries of the world, what we have managed to do when we've made commitments for 2020, and prior to that for the first Kyoto period, is meet and exceed those commitments by around 430 million tons of abatement. Many other countries, including some who occasionally take high profile stances, have not achieved domestic change in their emissions, They've had to go out and rely on purchasing international credits to get to that point. Australia has been able to reduce our emissions and do it at home, in a world leading way.

Fran Kelly: Senator Simon Birmingham is the Federal Finance Minister and Trade Minister. On trade, Minister, Australian importers across a wide range of products in sectors were bracing for trade bans to come into force on Friday. Were they imposed, is there any evidence of disruption of Australian products to Chinese ports?

Simon Birmingham: So Fran, we've been monitoring very closely, there are areas of concern and troubling concern that we were already aware of prior to Friday, such as the longer checks that are being taken on live seafood. The lobster sector, in particular and given the sensitivity of that product you need to make sure all checks are timely. We don't have any problems with checking and testing of mineral content or the like, but we are concerned if it takes too long and therefore risks damage to or loss of the product. But elsewhere, we have seen contrary to some of the suggestions, that there might be a complete ban on Australian exports. We've seen product continuing to move over recent days. That's welcome. The Chinese authorities had denied the idea that there was an outright ban across a sweeping range of product categories. So we're still working to try to resolve some of the technical issues that are troubling and causing us concern, but equally pleasing to see that industry seems to still be processing those exports in other areas without seeming problems at this stage.

Fran Kelly: Well, the exporters who took part in a phone hook up with Austrade late last week apparently say they were advised that things are not going to get better and to try and find new markets. That sounds like surrender.

Simon Birmingham: No, we want to continue to engage with the Chinese market. China is obviously a very important export market to Australia, but we do encourage our exporters to recognise that the risk profile during the course of this year of trade with China does appear to have changed, a number of administrative decisions taken by China have disrupted those trade flows, have caused some Australian businesses losses, such as the lobster industry we were just talking about. And that as a government that has also secured trade agreements with Japan and Korea, with Indonesia, through the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Vietnam, Canada, Mexico, that we do urge our exporters to also look and seize those opportunities, which, pleasingly, many have been doing. It's not just with China that we've seen our export volumes grow over recent years, but with many of those aforementioned nations as well.

Fran Kelly: Minister, just finally, on Four Corners tonight there are allegations of misconduct by some senior Government MPs and it's reported in The Australian today that the Government has made complaints ahead of that story. Do you think it's in the public interest for the behavior of elected officials to be put under the microscope, and allegations of misconduct investigated?

Simon Birmingham: Fran, we are all open to scrutiny. We have a free and open media in Australia, and that media undertakes its scrutiny in a fairly vigorous way, I've found over a good number of years now in public office. I trust that such scrutiny is fair and considered in the way it's approached. I've obviously not seen the Four Corners episode; I don't know what it contains.

Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham, thank very much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, my pleasure.

Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham is the Federal Minister for Trade and Finance, he's also the new Government leader in the Senate of course, Mathias Cormann has left the building. Simon Birmingham, not just Trade and Tourism Minister, which has kept him very, very busy, especially during the times of this pandemic. But also now, Finance Minister, another key role.

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