Interview on Sky News with David Speers

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Australian coal exports into China; Julie Bishop; Georgina Downer.
24 February 2019

David Speers: Trade Minister Simon Birmingham joins me now. A very good morning to you, Minister. Thank you for your time this morning. What is the situation right now? Is Australian coal getting through all Chinese ports?

Simon Birmingham: Good morning David, it's good to be with you. We welcome the announcement and confirmation on Friday afternoon from China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs that reports that there is any ban on Australian coal, or reports that there is any country-based discrimination applied to imports into China are false. We had believed them to be false, they were the intelligence and private assurances we were receiving. And we welcome the fact that China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has put that on the public record. And I have spoken to China's ambassador in Australia to thank him for that confirmation, but also to highlight the fact that there remain some issues around the timeliness of processing through ports, and that we're eager to understand any reasons for those delays. Questions such as the quality and standard of coal are reasonable questions and of course we work with our companies exporting to China to ensure that they comply. And indeed in many cases they are opportunities for Australia because the quality of the product that we export, the efficiency of that product, is amongst the best in the world.

David Speers: It is. It's much better quality, much more efficient coal than what they can dig out of the ground in China, hence why they buy so much Australian coal. Just getting back to the point that you raise there about the timeliness through the port, though, back to that question. What is happening right now? Is the coal getting through?

Simon Birmingham: Well certainly in some cases it is. I've spoken to chief executives of various mining companies from Australia and, in the main, they are calm about the situation. Yes, in some ports there are delays, and those delays have seen timelines for processing move from around 25 days or thereabouts out to closer to 40 days. So they're some of the issues that we're just seeking clarity on. There are suggestions that through certain ports…

David Speers: Okay. Sorry to jump in there. So, it's taking nearly twice as long for coal to get through, but it is getting through?

Simon Birmingham: That's right, David. Now, in some cases, we're still to see some of that processed. This is a situation that's analogous to a similar one that occurred late last year where we did see, again, a temporary blowout in processing times. But then after a period we saw much of that coal move through. All of this played out during the final quarter of last year, but then at the end of that quarter when we reconciled all of the figures Australia's exports to China were at record levels both by volume and by value. So you can sometimes see these delays, but they don't necessarily mean that the product doesn't clear through customs and make it to the suppliers. An important point here, one which we have made to China and that I've made to officials that I've spoken with, is that this isn't just important for the Australian businesses, it's also important for the Chinese businesses that rely upon that product, that they have firm confidence in terms of the reliability of product reaching them for their business operations. That's why we seek clarification. But we will now work privately and cooperatively with Chinese officials to try to resolve any of those issues around timeliness, to provide as much certainty to businesses in Australia and China as we possibly can.

David Speers: We have a much-trumpeted free trade agreement between Australia and China. What does it say about this sort of thing? Is it allowed to delay coal imports like this?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the free trade agreement tackles things such as tariff rates and provides, in many cases, for tariff-free access into markets. In terms of technical issues such as the processing through ports, those matters are more in the non-tariff field space. They're not so expressly dealt with in the free trade agreement. But the free trade agreement and our partnership agreement with China do set up mechanisms for dialogue between Australia and China which allows us to work through these types of issues. That's certainly what we're doing at present, it's what our ambassador in Beijing and her team are doing, and of course it's what our team in Canberra and I have been doing through our discussions with China's embassy here.

David Speers: How close is this great trade relationship. You mentioned you can talk to the ambassador, our ambassador in China and the Chinese ambassador here. But can you pick up the phone to your Ministerial counterpart, can you shoot a text off? What's that relationship like?

Simon Birmingham: We've had good relations in recent times. I met, when I was in China, with my counterpart there. I was in Shanghai at that stage, at the China International Import Expo. Since then we've seen Marise Payne, the Foreign Minister, Christopher Pyne the Defence Minister, all moving through China to speak with their counterparts as well. Of course, China has their system of government and we work as best we can with that system. We don't always agree on everything but we have got, I think, very clear and firm relations around how it is we can constructively and cooperatively deal with each other. I sat with…

David Speers: But it's not the sort of line where you can pick up the phone and talk to him when something like this happens?

Simon Birmingham: Look, we don't swap text messages full of emojis, but we do absolutely make sure that we have professional lines of communication. I was there with Prime Minister Morrison when he met with Premier Li in Singapore late last year, and that was a very constructive dialogue where it was openly acknowledged between the Prime Minister and Premier Li that we won't always agree on every issue. But there was a firm commitment between the two of them that we will make sure we have open, professional dialogue, direct with one another, wherever it is required.

David Speers: Just a final one on the coal issue. A lot of speculation that, while it may not be in breach of trade rules, this sort of behind the barrier frustration of Australian coal imports, so important to the Australian economy, this is China's way of punishing us or at least letting us know they can punish us, over things like banning Huawei from the 5G network in Australia, or the decision when it comes to Huang Xiangmo and not allowing him back into Australia. Do you see it in those terms?

Simon Birmingham: I don't, David. I know that there are commentators and analysts who love to try to jump to conclusions that are based upon conspiracy theories. But I think the facts demonstrate that those conclusions are frequently invalid and incorrect. There was much speculation of that sort way back at the start of last year. And yet by the end of last year our trading relationship with China was stronger and of greater value than ever before. Now, we're committed to make sure that we continue to have that professional, cooperative relationship. It is one that recognises, as I said, we won't always agree. There will be difficult issues that we deal with in strategic and defence terms from time to time. But we are strong and quite integrated economic partners. In the end China does rely upon Australian content, Australian exports, for the way in which much of their industry operates, and we want to provide them with the quality, the reliability, that allows their economy to continue to grow. Because China's success is one of the great stories of our modern time in terms of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, not just in China but more broadly across the region. We also look now to seize as many of the opportunities as we can elsewhere within our region. China, of course, has been a country that has been booming for some period of time, hence the growth in our economic relationships. But the growth opportunities that exist in Vietnam, in India, in Indonesia, just to name three, are increasing and so we're really working to increase those ties and relations as well.

David Speers: All right. So, when tensions are high it is pure coincidence that China decides to frustrate Australian coal imports?

Simon Birmingham: But as I said, we've seen this before in terms of a slowdown in processing times, and then we've seen them cleared. There are quite likely, from what we understand, domestic factors at play as well in terms of those environmental factors they publicly cite, as well as certain domestic industry factors, and they're the things that we'll keep talking privately to understand.

David Speers: A bit of protectionism to help their own coal industry, with a bit of protectionism?

Simon Birmingham: Well, there may be elements of that. But in the end the quality, the reliability, the efficiency of our coal stands head and shoulders above much of the rest of the world…

David Speers: No argument on that, indeed.

Simon Birmingham: That's why we're such a valued partner.

David Speers: Now, a Minister or former Minister who did exchange a lot of emojis on text message with counterparts. Let's talk about Julie Bishop, a former Foreign Minister and a friend of yours. She's departing at the election now, she has confirmed. Look, not only is Julie Bishop going, Kelly O'Dwyer is as well of course, Ann Sudmalis, Jane Prentice, you've already lost Julia Banks. There aren't too many women left, I think it's fair to say. What is being done about that in the Liberal Party?

Simon Birmingham: Well, David, firstly can I acknowledge Julie as former Foreign Minister. Her contribution in terms of leading the development of the Foreign Policy White Paper which is guiding us through very strategically challenging times around the world, her contribution in terms of developing the New Colombo Plan that is going to provide long-lasting opportunities for exchange from Australian students with the rest of the world and all of the long-term benefits that provides. It's a wonderful legacy. But I want to contest your point there about the number of women in our ranks making a contribution. Just take Julie's home state of Western Australia as an example there. We have Ministers, Linda Reynolds, Melissa Price, Michaelia Cash, the Chief Government Whip Nola Marino, all of whom continue to make a very significant contribution to the Government. Of course we want to continue to see great women like that pre-selected. I hope that will continue to be the case and we have to, all of us, work very hard to ensure that we encourage more women to participate in all of the party processes so that they are well-placed for pre-selections in the future.

David Speers: The Liberal Party doesn't like the idea of quotas, but is there a big difference between the party having a quota and the Prime Minister saying: I want a woman pre-selected?

Simon Birmingham: I think there is a difference there. In the end that still identifies the fact that local pre-selectors - and what is dear to the heart of the Liberal Party, is that local members of the Liberal Party make decisions about who our candidate will be. It's not the case in the Labor Party, where union bosses and factional bosses sit in closed rooms and decide how they'll carve the seats up. That's their model. Our model is that if you join the Liberal Party, you get involved in your local branches, you can have your say on a local pre-selection. What that means is, of course, those of us sitting in senior positions in the party cannot necessarily influence those pre-selections, it falls down to those local branch members, and those local branch members will always make a decision based on who they think is the best on the day to represent that seat, their ties to the local community and the offering they can make in terms of policy skills. They're the types of factors those local branch members will decide upon.

David Speers: Just a quick one, finally. One woman the Liberal Party has pre-selected in your state of South Australia, Georgina Downer, hoping that she'll be able to win the seat of Mayo back for the Liberal Party. I just want to show you a picture, I'm not sure if you've seen it in the last couple of days. This is Georgina Downer, she's handing out a cheque to a local bowling club for more than $127,000. The cheque has got her face on it, it's got her name on it, for all intents and purposes it looks very much like that cheque is from Georgina Downer. But it's not, it's from the Australian taxpayer. She's not even a Member of Parliament. Why is a candidate handing out a taxpayer funded cheque?

Simon Birmingham: David, it's pretty obviously what they would call a novelty cheque rather than an actual bank cheque. Of course what Georgina is doing there is…

David Speers: Why is she handing out any cheque at all from the taxpayer?

Simon Birmingham: She's highlighting, quite rightly, commitments that our Government has made. And in this case, I think, thanks to advocacy that Georgina has pursued on behalf of the local community, to secure local funding commitments to develop community facilities in those areas. That type of self-promotional activity is what members and candidates do right across the country all the time to help raise awareness of the fact that they're working and fighting for their local communities. And Georgina is doing an incredible job day in, day out, working hard and advocating for the people of Mayo. She's on the phone to me frequently highlighting different issues that the Mayo electorate face, different projects that need to be supported in that electorate. And of course I think it's become a much starker contrast in Mayo, as it has across the nation over the last couple of weeks, that Rebekha Sharkie, who in the by-election was absolutely unequivocal in her statement of commitment to support Operation Sovereign Borders, then turns around and goes into the Parliament and is one of the leading cheerleaders standing alongside the Greens and others to unpick Operation Sovereign Borders, to unpick our border protection policies that have worked to stop the flow of illegal boats to Australia. And that's going to be a very strong point that Georgina and others will be able to make at the election later this year to highlight to the people of Mayo what's at risk…

David Speers: Well just let me ask you finally about that then. Border protection, the Government's announced anyone who is transferred will go to Christmas Island. How does that make sense for someone who is suffering a mental illness, they've been diagnosed as such, need to be transferred? Why send them all the way to Christmas Island?

Simon Birmingham: The Government believes, firstly, that we can provide all the medical support required on Christmas Island. Secondly, we're operating on the basis of advice from our national security agencies. This is about trying to ensure that we maintain as strong a protection ring around Australia in terms of our borders as we possibly can, notwithstanding the damage that Bill Shorten, the Greens and others have done to that protection with their rushed, ill-thought legislation they've pushed through the Parliament showing that they will risk national security just to make cheap political points.

David Speers: Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, we will have to leave it there but thank you very much for joining me this morning.

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