Interview on Sky News Live First Edition with Pete Stefanovic

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: China suspending beef imports; China dumping inquiry on Australian barley; COVID-19 inquiry.
13 May 2020

Peter Stefanovic: And one of those senior politicians joins us now. So joining us from Canberra is Trade Minister Simon Birmingham. Well just on that Minister, are you relieved for Josh Frydenberg?

Simon Birmingham: Well given Josh is good mate, I'm very relieved for him personally. And yes, he's got an important job to do and it's great to know he'll be back at work today and that everybody can get on as normal.

Peter Stefanovic: Okay. Well let's talk about the problems that we're having with China at the moment. Given what's happened in the last couple of days, is this the beginning of a trade war?

Simon Birmingham: Well I don't believe so, Peter, and I certainly hope not. China has presented these issues both publicly and privately as matters that they have had under investigation for periods of 12 to 18 months. These are issues that they say are unconnected. And so it's in the best interests of Australia's farmers and exporters to approach these issues on their merits. Now our view is that in the case of beef, they are relatively minor technical issues and they ought to be relatively quickly addressed. In the case of barley, it's an investigation process, but we certainly don't think that there is a case to be had in terms of allegations of dumping or subsidy of product by Australian barley producers.

Peter Stefanovic: You say China says it's unconnected, do you believe them?

Simon Birmingham: Peter, as I said, it’s in the best interest of our farmers and exporters for us to respond to these in a calm and professional way, that deals with the evidence that is put to us and refutes it with our own compelling evidence and identify where we are. In the case of the beef labels, putting in place processes and procedures to make sure that there are no future errors in those labels or the like. And in the case of barley, to put forward the very clear economic, budgetary, and other evidence that our barley farmers are nothing but the most productive and efficient in the world, who price their product competitively because they're just damn good farmers.

Peter Stefanovic: The problem is — and I do agree with you there — the problem is though that you had these threats from China in recent weeks where they say they're not going to buy our beef; they're not going to buy our wine. Then you've got the problems with barley. Now you've got the suspensions on beef. I mean, it's got to be more than a coincidence, doesn't it?

Simon Birmingham: There's no doubt that Ambassador Cheng’s comments a couple of weeks ago were unhelpful, and at the time I was very clear that in no way would Australia change our public health policies, or our national security policies, or any of our policy positions under threat of economic coercion, and that remains very much the case. And I can understand why commentators ask questions like you just have about linkage with those comments, but it's my job and it's the government's job to work in the best interests of our farmers and exporters. And for them, we need to work through these issues calmly and methodically, put the best case forward, and then we will of course all be able to judge the merits of the way in which these decisions are made by China on the outcomes against the evidence that's been provided.

Peter Stefanovic: Could the wine industry be next?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I hope not. There's no reason why there should be any measures against any other Australian industry to my knowledge. We were aware of the fact that this barley investigation had been running for close to 18 months, and we knew there'd been the occasional labeling discrepancy by a handful of Australian producers and suppliers of beef. So these matters were always possible that they would come to a head, and indeed in the case of barley, quite likely because it was running to a fixed timeline. The clock started 18 months ago, it was always due to expire in the case of this week or two. So as I say, we will continue to work and put forward the best possible interests of Australia's farmers and producers. Our export volumes remain at record levels, including into China, including through this pandemic, with a record trade surplus recorded just in the last lot of trade statistics, which is a real credit to our exporting business.

Peter Stefanovic: You do say- I mean, you say it's not going to be a trade war. But you've got these comments from the Global Times overnight, which is basically the mouthpiece for the communist government, that tariffs could be followed by more retaliatory measures. I mean, at the very least, is it intimidation?

Simon Birmingham: Well again, I think those sorts of pieces of commentary are unhelpful, and they're unhelpful when we are trying to approach these issues on their merits and on the substance of the arguments that are there. Every nation, and certainly our approach as a government, but every nation should really adopt the approach where they are firm in their policy positions, where they are strong in defence of their values, but they are respectful in terms of their language and engagement with one another. And there are instances of commentary, both sometimes in the Australian media and sometimes in the Chinese media, that fail that test. But it's for governments to rise above that. And it's certainly my job as Trade Minister to rise well above that and to make sure that I advanced the best interests of our exporters and farmers.

Peter Stefanovic: Do you expect those tariffs to be imposed on barley?

Simon Birmingham: Look, obviously the fact that a draft finding has been provided that suggests they will be means that we have an uphill battle from here. But we are going to put our best case forward. We don't believe that there is any evidence to support the idea that our barley producers are subsidised by the Australian Government. We don't believe there's any evidence that they dumped product below production cost on international markets. They just happen to be some of the most efficient and productive barley producers in the world. We will put back a strong case that deals with suggestions, for example, that investment in infrastructure along the Murray-Darling Basin somehow skews barley pricing. That's just a nonsensical argument, the vast majority of Australia's barley is produced by dry land farmers, not irrigated farmers. And there's no rationale to be counting that type of investment which is about making our river system more sustainable for the future as any type of subsidy.

Peter Stefanovic: Just quickly and just finally, Minister, will the government push ahead with its inquiry against China over the origins of COVID-19?

Simon Birmingham: We’ll be supporting a European Union proposal to the World Health Assembly that there be an
investigation around COVID-19, its origins, its handling. That's perfectly logical. You've got hundreds of thousands of people around the world who've died, and millions of people have lost their jobs, and billions of people who have had their lives disrupted. The least the world can expect is that there be an investigation, and Australia's far from a lone voice in advancing that. As I say, it will be an EU resolution that we are supporting at that World Assembly discussion.

Peter Stefanovic: Okay. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time this morning thanks so much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure. Thanks Peter.

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