Interview on Radio National Breakfast with Hamish Macdonald

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Defence Treaty with Japan, China-Australia trade relations; COVID in SA.
18 November 2020

Hamish Macdonald: The Morrison Government will today declare that it is willing to rebuild respectful and beneficial bonds with China. But the relationship, which is fractured over trade and COVID-19, is set to be tested even further with Australia signing a landmark Defence Treaty with Japan. The Prime Minister says it's a pivotal moment for our ties with Tokyo.

[Excerpt]

Scott Morrison: The only other nation that Japan has entered into such an agreement was the United States some 60 years ago, and so we respect and appreciate the special trust that you have placed in us in getting to this important point of our agreement today.

[End of Excerpt]

Hamish Macdonald: Scott Morrison speaking from Japan there about the Reciprocal Access Agreement, as it's called, which will see potentially joint military exercises in the East and South China Seas. Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Trade and Finance. Good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Hamish. Good to be with you.

Hamish Macdonald: What's the strategic importance of this agreement? What does it mean?

Simon Birmingham: Well, agreement means that Australia and Japan can have closer and clearer relations in terms of our Defence Forces and their cooperation with one another – all sorts of cooperative activities can be joint exercises, humanitarian, disaster relief operations. These are the sorts of things that Japan's Self-Defense Forces and the Australian Defence Force as two G20 economies, leading nations within our region, are often expected to participate in. Japan, of course, has historical limitations on the operations of their Self-Defense Forces, but this will provide for closer operations, more cooperative operations, and clarity in terms of the way those operations occur for our two nations.

Hamish Macdonald: Obviously though, Japan is a strategic rival of China. How will this soothe our relationship with Beijing?

Simon Birmingham: This would have no bearing in that regard. Japan and Australia are nations that share common values, we share a commitment to democratic principles, principles around freedom. And it’s little surprise that we would want to work cooperatively, and particularly work more closely and cooperatively in areas such as humanitarian or disaster relief operations. And so building confidence is-

Hamish Macdonald: With respect, Minister, that’s a bit fanciful to think it'll have no bearing on our relationship with China. I mean, it is widely understood the way China will interpret this.

Simon Birmingham: Well, it shouldn't be interpreted as anything other than Australia and Japan working closely together – we have a long and deep relationship. This is, of course, a significant step for Japan. They have only ever struck one such agreement with another nation, and that was with the United States 60 years ago. Japan is not only an important partner in terms of strategic relations, it's a very important long standing trading and economic partner for Australia too, but we see this as a logical step in terms of the partnership that Australia and Japan have.

Hamish Macdonald: The Prime Minister, though, says the Defence deal will be a key plank in our response to, in his words: the increasingly challenging security environment in the region. Other than China, what are we talking about? What's posing a challenge to the security in this particular region?

Simon Birmingham: Hamish, other nations, other players across the region or globally, shouldn't view this in any way other than the closeness of our cooperation. And they certainly, if they support peaceful respect for international rules and norms, should see nothing other than two close nations of similar bonds and values enhancing and deepening their cooperation.

Hamish Macdonald: I'm just wondering if you can point as to any other security challenges in this part of the world?

Simon Birmingham: Hamish, we see, we see numerous security challenges that emerge in terms of the challenge of terrorism at times, the instability that occurs in different nations, the challenges sometimes that natural disasters bring. There are a number of different security challenges that occur, not just some of the tensions that exist in relation to maritime access or the like, and it's about being able to cooperate across the full reach and breadth of those challenges.

Hamish Macdonald: Some significant comments coming from the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, today. He is going to throw his weight, it would seem, behind efforts to try and restore relations with Beijing – we can't- for everything you've just said, we can't ignore that reality. He's expected to tell a strategic forum that Australia stands ready to engage with the Chinese Government in a respectful, mutually beneficial dialogue. What does that mean? What's going to change in terms of the tone and tenor of our relationship with China compared with what we've seen in recent months?

Simon Birmingham: Well Hamish, those are, those are points that I have reinforced time and time again, and I welcome very much the fact that the Treasurer is reinforcing them as well publicly. Australia has been clear all along that our position has not changed, we do wish to continue a mutually beneficial relationship and dialogue with China – we know that that is best for the peace and prosperity of our region to have that a common approach of engagement. And we have, as I say, reinforced time and again that Australia is willing to come to the table for such dialogue and to work through difficult issues and differences that we may have.

It doesn't mean that we will compromise at all in terms of our values, our security, our interests, but it does mean that the door is open from the Australian perspective and that the ball is very much in China's court to be willing to sit down and have that proper dialogue.

Hamish Macdonald: I mean, the Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing rejected that statement about the ball being in China's court yesterday, outlining a litany of complaints about Australia. And he said what he calls a Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice and blatant violation of the basic norms of international relations. It doesn't sound like they're picking up what you're putting down, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: All I could reinforce there, Hamish, as is well publicised, I and other Australian Government Ministers are willing to take phone calls, engage with our counterparts, have meetings with our counterparts. We have expressed that very clearly – we're willing to have that dialogue. The ball is in Beijing's court in the sense that it is up to them as to whether they are willing to come to the table to have those talks too.

Hamish Macdonald: But is there anything else that you are doing? Are you, are you changing the way you’re trying to approach this then? If you’re saying that your position hasn’t changed I’m just wondering whether, given the ongoing deterioration of this, whether you’re actually taking any steps to try and get those phone calls happening?

Simon Birmingham: I note that some of the comments that come from, from the Chinese Foreign Ministry indicate or often reference Australian statements that we assume relate to matters of human rights or the like. The point that I would make is, Australia's position hasn't changed in those areas. For decades, Australia has had a consistent position when it comes to international human rights obligations – that has at times been a point of tension in the Australia-China relationship, as it has with relations with other countries. But previously, it hasn't prevented us from being able to work past those issues, and cooperate in the areas of mutual agreement and mutual benefit – and that is precisely what we want to be able to continue to do.

Hamish Macdonald: Sure. But with respect, Senator, I don’t think you answered my question, which is whether or not you're doing anything different now to try and actually get those phone calls happening? I mean, it seems like there's a sort of retelling of history here. I suspect the Chinese Government would be well aware of that history.

I just want to know whether you can tell us anything about what you're doing to try and re-establish some form of communication with Beijing. This has been going on for so long. We're hearing all of these concerns from, from the various exporting industries in Australia, but they want to know what the Government is actually doing other than repeating the same lines over and over again.

Simon Birmingham: Well look, if your question is what are we going to change about Australia's policy here, and to be very clear that we are…

Hamish Macdonald: No, no. My question is, is that what you are practically doing to actually re-establish some kind of communication channel?

Simon Birmingham: Well, practically we have reached out at every possible level and pathway in terms of writing to Beijing, in terms of representations by our Ambassador in Beijing, in terms of representations to Beijing's Ambassador in China. Our messages have been consistent through the course of this year and for much longer. Our approaches have been consistent to indicate our willingness to engage in that type of dialogue. It is fanciful to suggest that we haven't sought and tried pretty much every possible or conceivable avenue in terms of expressing that willingness.

And I have been asked on more occasions than I could possibly count or care to remember about the willingness to have that dialogue, whether I had sought calls or discussions. We have, we are, we're consistent. Our door remains open, but we cannot force the other party to come to the table. That's why when I say the ball is in their court; it is, because only they can decide to now take that call or have those meetings.

Hamish Macdonald: Thanks for answering that question. Appreciate it. Your home state of South Australia; I think we can hear the birds in the background there this morning, you're obviously enjoying the morning. But the state is dealing with this alarming outbreak of COVID-19.

The Parafield cluster, as it is being described, linked to a hotel quarantine breach – it's grown to 20 that we know of. This is the first real test of South Australia's contact tracing systems. Is it therefore reasonable for other states, territories to be effectively shutting the borders again?

Hamish Macdonald: Hamish, it is a beautiful morning in Adelaide, and I'm pleased the birds are chirpy. But the locals are nervous – it's safe to say these are challenging times for SA and everybody is, is on edge as to exactly what will unfold.

It is pleasing to see the strengthen of the state government's response, around 4000 South Australians have now been placed in isolation as a huge effort in terms of testing, contact tracing and isolating, has been underway. And the authorities are to be applauded for the extent to which they have mobilised all of those resources, and that gives us the best possible chance of successfully suppressing COVID in this state to maintain that type of momentum.

And that indeed has been a message that the Commonwealth has had and has worked through consistently with all the states and territories for some time. We had the Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, audit the contact tracing capabilities of states and territories, and, and we did that knowing that these types of outbreaks were always possible and it would be so crucial to make sure that states could scale up rapidly in the way SA has done in the last couple of days.

Now, in terms of border closures, I respect the rights of other states to, to act in different ways, but they do need to be mindful of being proportionate to the circumstances and also trying to act so far as possible in a way that is considerate of individual circumstances. And I think there've been some tests in that regard as to the way states have acted, and we would also really urge the states and territories to be looking at common approaches when it comes to what is a hot spots definition, and how do they respond to that.

And, and I guess one of the real challenges for our tourism industry, wearing my hat as the Tourism Minister, is the enormous uncertainty that the different reactions of different states, applied in vastly different ways, is created as a result of the, the outbreak here in SA.

Hamish Macdonald: You got so many hats; we lose track these days. We are going to have to go, but very briefly, Simon Birmingham. I suspect many will note that you are applauding the South Australian Government in this circumstance, given that there's been a breach of hotel quarantine. It stands in stark contrast to the way the Federal Government responded to a similar set of circumstances in Victoria – it came down very hard on Dan Andrews and the government there.

Briefly, is there something that South Australia- makes South Australia different in this case? Why are they being applauded where, where Victoria was so severely admonished?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I don't want to get into word semantics, but, but I think the breach is certainly profoundly different at this stage. And what’s happened in South Australia appears to be that a cleaner in one of the hotels, through some contact point in the hotel, has managed to contract COVID. Now, that's going to require everybody to analyse very closely what has happened there, but it's nothing as sensational as, as people being let out, or guards sleeping with, with the people that are meant to be being contained there. So-

Hamish Macdonald: I'm not sure that was- that ever proved to be correct.

Simon Birmingham: Well look, I can't remember. I can't say that I followed all the steps of the Victorian inquiry closely but, but I do, but I do think that-

Hamish Macdonald: Alright. Well, you might want to fact check yourself on that one, Senator Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I would happily take the correction if need be, Hamish, but I think SA, within the space of 24 hours, had identified clearly the cause, the link and has, has engaged rapidly in a contact tracing activity. And if you do recall, much of the concern that was happening in Victoria were the huge delays in relation to contact tracing.

Now, we threw support at Victoria in terms of the Defence Forces and support for the Victorian Government, just as federally we’ve thrown support at South Australia in terms of Defence Forces and the support of the Federal Government.

So the treatment, the actions in terms of support for the state are the same. The circumstances that we've got the states to these, these positions were, though, somewhat different, and the immediate capabilities of the state in responding with contact tracing appears at this stage to be quite different as well. And that's what gives us hope at least in terms of SA’s management.

Hamish Macdonald: We'll leave it there. We'll let you go and Google to check yourself on that. Simon Birmingham, thanks very much indeed.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Hamish. Cheers.

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