Interview on Sky News Live, Afternoon Agenda, with Kieran Gilbert

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Australian-China trade relationship; State border restrictions.
19 May 2020

Kieran Gilbert: Let’s bring in the Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham. Minister, thanks very much for your time. Have you been briefed on that, that possibility that China is simply opening the way by getting rid of Australian barley for American barley under that free trade agreement with the United States?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, it’s good to be with you this afternoon. Look, we’re well aware of the trade agreement that was struck between the Trump administration and China. Now, that agreement has certain commitments in relation to growth in purchases by China of certain US products. There’s no reason for us to necessarily believe there is a linkage here, but we’ll certainly be monitoring what happens in terms of the barley market closely as we work through our appeals and other responses to what China has done overnight by placing duties on Australian barley.

Kieran Gilbert: And in relation to this particular instance, you believe that we've got no grounds with which to put these tariffs in place [audio skip] was reporting some of the submission that was made by the Australian Government on this. Quite frankly, this is groundless, the accusation against the Australian industry. What recourse can you take that might have an outcome here?

Simon Birmingham: We certainly see that there are errors both in the law and in fact, in the findings that China has presented. Now we're going to go through those very, very closely and work hand in glove with the Australian barley industry in terms of the type of appeal options that are available to us. I've been clear all along that we reserve all our rights, whether it's in relation to a WTO appeal processes or in terms of using other domestic mechanisms within the Chinese system to appeal this. We see no grounds upon which these allegations against our barley industry stack up. Australian farmers are nothing but highly productive, highly competitive, and they put their barley and other grains into markets like China at market prices.

Kieran Gilbert: And in relation to that deal with the United States, if we look to other sectors, what else is at risk? If they are opening up the market for more US imports to China under that deal, what other sectors are at risk for us?

Simon Birmingham: Look, Kieran, we back Australia's exporters to compete, and the disappointing thing about this barley decision is that by placing duties on Australian barley, it impedes the ability of those barley exporters to compete on fair terms. But anywhere else, in terms of Australia's product, gets into China under the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, largely free of tariffs and duties being in place on them. And I'm confident that our producers will continue to compete fair and square and that's all we seek, is that fair access that allows us to compete, whether it's against the US or anybody else around the world, to be able to sell our product without any trade distorting measures in place.

Kieran Gilbert: Your counterpart said that there were avenues of communication open but he won't take your call. What was he talking about yesterday, the Chinese Commerce Minister?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that's a question for them. We made sure we pursued every possible avenue in terms of the way in which we have sought to prosecute this case. We submitted more than 10,000 pages of evidence that includes market analysis and modelling. We are disappointed that China provided just 10 days’ notice of its draft findings. We abided, nonetheless, and responded to that, getting in our response. And then of course, we saw a really very little time that China took to consider the detailed response we made before making findings that repeated the erroneous claims that were made in the draft finding. And that's very disappointing, but it won't stop our resolve to get on, try to make sure the relationship and the trading relationship is as successful as possible and to appeal and continue to argue the case for our barley producers and to try to get an outcome for them that ultimately sees the removal of these unfair duties.

Kieran Gilbert: I know that you understandably want to keep this dispute, the trade row, away from the criticism that the Chinese authorities have leveled at Australia for calling for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, but you can see why people think this is retribution.

Simon Birmingham: I can see why those links are drawn. The very unhelpful comments made by China's ambassador in Australia a few weeks ago, insinuating threats of economic coercion or the like, obviously draw people to these conclusions. Chinese authorities have been at pains though to stress that this anti-dumping investigation has been underway for 18 months. Today was always the deadline right from the very start of this process 18 months ago. Today was always the deadline for finalisation of the matter. So, there is obviously a high level of coincidence between today's deadline happening and the World Health Assembly discussion into COVID-19, which could never have been foreshadowed or known about 18 months ago.

So, we have engaged, as I say, in good faith and we will continue to do that and to use the Chinese processes, but I can certainly understand, given Ambassador Cheng's comments, why people draw some of those conclusions.

Kieran Gilbert: And his comments haven't become any more diplomatic over the last day or so either. He's just today put out a statement saying: to claim that the World Health Assembly’s resolution is a vindication of Australia's call is nothing but a joke.

What do you say to this ongoing quite combative language from the Ambassador?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Australia is not going to engage in cheap politicking over an issue as important as COVID-19. And COVID-19 has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world, including Chinese lives. It's caused economic devastation with the loss of millions of jobs, including Chinese jobs, and we think these issues ought to be considered seriously. Our engagement through the World Health Assembly has been to seriously engage with other parties around the world. We are pleased that other countries from around the world have engaged seriously in the process and that there is now going to be an investigation and work undertaken, both looking at the origins and issues around a transmission from animals to humans of these types of viruses, as well as work around the nature of the international response to this and how we can improve that. These are tangible, significant steps forward in terms of the international response to COVID-19 that can better prepare the world to make sure we don't suffer this sort of fate again. And I would have thought the appropriate response from China's ambassador in Australia would have been to welcome these outcomes and welcome the opportunity for all of us to work together on this important issue.

Kieran Gilbert: Yeah, indeed. But instead of that, what we've got is him saying that there is no similarity between what Marise Payne and the Government had called for and this WHO outcome, trying to find some difference between the two. He's saying that quite- he's pointing to the fact that even Marise Payne had suggested she wanted an investigation outside of the WHO. Why does he remain so combatted in your view?

Simon Birmingham: Well, again, it's a question for Ambassador Cheng to answer for his approach. However, the Australian Government's approach, just as we won't on trade issues engage in a tit for tat type retaliatory measures, we will work sensibly through the issues that are before us, equally on these types of provocative comments. We're not going to escalate rhetoric. We're not going to have some sort of cheap political exchange with China's ambassador in Australia. We're going to work to get outcomes and we want those outcomes to be ones where we are able to work with Chinese authorities and authorities right around the world, to learn the lessons from COVID-19 and to make sure that we are all better prepared to avoid a repeat scenario in the future.

Kieran Gilbert: You're also trying to get some outcomes with the state governments. But Premier Palaszczuk, Premier Marshall and Premier McGowan don't look like they're going to be opening their borders anytime soon. And yesterday I had the Tourism Export Council Chief Simon Westaway warning that businesses will simply fall over if they don't start opening their borders to domestic tourism. What do you say to some of the state reactions to your call?

Simon Birmingham: Clearly, we have no choice but to maintain the international border restrictions at present because Australia has successfully stopped and slowed the spread of COVID-19 across our country and other nations haven't. So those international border restrictions are absolutely necessary to continue to protect the health of Australians and the wellbeing of Australians. But that of course means for our tourism industry there are no international visitors arriving and the only hope then for tourism operators across the country, who generate some one in 13 Australian jobs as part of their industry and the flow on effects, is domestic tourism, is to have Australians travelling across the country and visiting their businesses.

Now I'm not suggesting that states who’ve put in place border restrictions should lower them today, definitely not because there's a clear road map that they are working through and they ought to continue to steadily open up the parts of their economy as we've seen here in South Australia successfully getting children back to school, which Steven Marshall has done an exceptional job in leading the country on. And then making sure we reopen other businesses and getting restaurants and pubs and other things back open with appropriate social distancing requirements. And if over the coming weeks we successfully see all of those steps taken without any then flow on increase in the rate of transmission of COVID-19, then the states and territories who have border restrictions should be removing those border restrictions. Because if we're keeping numbers as low as they are right now then there's no reason to have those restrictions in place.

And the comments by Premier Palaszczuk that she thought September might be reasonable, is just far too far out in the future if we've kept the caseload low and means that tourism businesses in Queensland will feel enormous pain from that and I know there's great potential for New South Wales visitors to travel north to Queensland and to generate employment, work and business activity for those tourism operators, and that's what I want to see happen, so long as it is safe to do so.

Kieran Gilbert: So you want Premier Palaszczuk and the others to be looking, particularly the Queensland Premier, she mentioned September, you want a focus on say, July and the school holidays as the Prime Minister alluded to, is that more reasonable in your mind?

Simon Birmingham: It would be fantastic to see domestic tourism activity able to occur during those school holidays. Now, it's all going to be driven by the health advice and as I said, let's take the steps on the road map at present, make sure that we don’t see any uptick around the spread of COVID-19 as a result of that. But if we can take all of these steps successfully and keep the incidence of COVID-19 low then we should be seeing those border restrictions lifted. Otherwise those states will have to answer to their tourism industry about the impact of those restrictions on the recovery of that industry and the potential loss of jobs and loss of businesses.

Kieran Gilbert: Because- just finally, those few months could be pivotal to the survival of many businesses.

Simon Birmingham: Certainly. Look, for those in North Queensland in particular, the warmer weather that exists there, the winter holidays in southern Australia are a prime opportunity for travelers to get up there, escape the cold winter and enjoy a bit of warmth. And so I can understand their angst and their desire to be open as soon as possible. It shouldn't happen before it's safe to do so. We do need to make sure that we crawl before we walk in terms of reopening the economy and that's why we've got to have those restaurants and those pubs and those things that tourists want to visit successfully reopened. But then we've also got to make sure that there are customers travelling into the tourist regions to keep those restaurants, cafes and pubs viable.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, indeed and a little holiday to Tanunda, South Australia wouldn't be bad either in winter. Anyway…

Simon Birmingham: I certainly encourage people to come…

Kieran Gilbert: …I appreciate your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Kieran.

Kieran Gilbert: Talk to you soon.

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