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

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: An Australian citizen faces the death penalty in China; discussions with India and between the Five Eyes countries; discussions on opening the border to New Zealanders
14 June 2020

Kieran Gilbert: Developing news this weekend around Australia's relationship with Beijing after Chinese authorities yesterday revealed an Australian citizen had been sentenced to death over drug charges dating back to 2013. This follows a tumultuous few months in the relationship, with China warning its students to reconsider coming here amid the ongoing trade disputes over beef and barley.

Joining me this morning is the Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham. Minister, thanks so much for your time. Let's start with this Australia who's been sentenced to death. Is this retaliation over the tensions in the bilateral relationship?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, we shouldn't necessarily view it as such. We, as a nation, condemn the death penalty in all circumstances across all countries. Now, this is a reminder to all Australians, as is often the case when these sorts of consular cases come up, that Australian laws don't apply overseas, that other countries have much harsher penalties, particularly in relation to matters such as drug trafficking that can come to the use of the death penalty. But obviously this is very distressing for Mr Gilespie and his loved ones and our Government will continue to provide consular assistance to him and, of course, will continue to make representations, as we do right around the world, against the use of the death penalty.

Kieran Gilbert: During tensions with Canada last year a drug smuggler was given a retrial and sentenced to death. There are some similarities here.

Simon Birmingham: We should also note that China makes extensive use of the death penalty. That's not something that Australia condones, but it's a simple statement of fact. Over the last decade China has carried out death sentences in relation to citizens from the Philippines, from Japan and from other parts of the world. Now, we will continue to work on behalf of this Australian citizen to argue against the use of the death penalty and to support him through these circumstances. But it's not our legal system, it's not our justice system, and we can but make those sorts of representations.

Kieran Gilbert: Apparently this is the initial judgement, even though it's seven years on. He can appeal. Is there any hope in that system?

Simon Birmingham: There are legal avenues still available to Mr Gilespie. He has, I understand, a 10-day window in which to initiate appeal proceedings. That will be a matter for his legal team and no doubt our consular officials will be available to discuss that if they can.

Kieran Gilbert: On the warning from the Chinese Education Ministry this week over racism in Australia, is this just posturing or do you think it will have a material impact on the number of students coming here?

Simon Birmingham: Only time will tell in that sense, but it is based on an inaccurate assessment of Australia. Australia's a country that holds our self to a far higher standard than most other nations of the world. Where racism occurs we encourage people to call it out, and as leaders we condemn it. Where any acts of violence occur, we work hard to make sure they are investigated, prosecutions occur where they can. And indeed we keep statistics on these things. The Australian Human Rights Commission, in a very transparent way, far more transparent than most other countries, monitors these sorts of instances. And just today we see the New South Wales Police, in fact, highlighting that they see no material difference in the number of racial incidents in New South Wales that have been reported to them. But of course we have to be ever-vigilant, but I reject any suggestion that Australia is not a safe country for visitors and students to come and live and study in.

Kieran Gilbert: The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the Government needed to do some soul-searching in the way Australia treats and protects Chinese nationals here. What do you say to that?

Simon Birmingham: I say that we have amongst the highest standards in the world and we hold ourselves to a higher standard when it comes to not accepting any form of racism or intolerance, that we do encourage that type of transparency and reporting and active investigation. That is a standard that very few other nations can match.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, is there actually a chance Australia's performance in relation to COVID-19, much, much better than comparable nations, competing education markets like the UK and the US, that we might actually see a rise in the number of Chinese students as opposed to a fall in the number, because of our health performance?

Simon Birmingham: That will be an assessment that individual students make. But certainly, from an Australian perspective, as our Tourism Minister, our Trade Minister, and thinking about how we project ourselves to the world, our successful management of COVID-19 once again demonstrates that Australia is one of the safest countries in the world, one of the best-governed countries in the world. And I say that not in a partisan sense, but acknowledging the work of Labor Governments as well as Liberal Governments at state and territory levels, that overall our country has demonstrated that we keep those here safe and that we manage to achieve far superior public policy outcomes than most other countries of the world, which is what makes us such an attractive destination, particularly for English language studies. As a country we offer high quality education, an amazing lifestyle for those who come here, opportunities to experience the Australian way of life and, of course, a very safe environment.

Kieran Gilbert: And a lot of the Chinese students have experienced that and obviously many others would have heard about those experiences, so therefore this could see a rise in the number of students, even in the face of the posturing from the Communist Party.

Simon Birmingham: Chinese authorities have made these sorts of statements previously. Over the last couple of years we have seen similar types of warnings given at different junctures. That obviously hasn't stopped Chinese students or Chinese students from visiting Australia. Only time will tell, but we will continue to reinforce, whether it's in the Chinese market or any other market overseas, that Australia is a safe, welcoming, hospitable nation for visitors, be they coming here for leisure purposes, for study purposes or for work purposes.

Kieran Gilbert: You've indicated you want to visit China later this year for talks, as you've said, to sit down like proper grown-ups, about the relationship and the tensions within it. Have you had any positive signs that that might happen?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Kieran, I've said that I'd like to visit China when it's appropriate to do so. I can't put a timeline on that in terms of international travel at present. Health guidelines and all of those factors will determine those matters. But I do think that in terms of dealing with points of difference between nations, the best way to deal with those points of difference, as it is points of difference in any aspect of society, is dialogue, open discussion. Australia will stand true to our values and firm and defensive policies that protect the interests of our country, and if we have points of difference with other countries as a result of that, well, so be it. But we are very happy to sit down and talk through those points of difference and do so in a mature way that is respectful of the relationships and partnerships we want to have with those countries. And it's disappointing when other nations won't come to the table with the same open-minded attitude to have that sort of dialogue.

Kieran Gilbert: Have you had any encouraging signs, though, that the Chinese counterpart is open to that?

Simon Birmingham: At officials level and diplomatic level we continue to engage in making representations on a range of the types of issues we've been discussing this morning. But these discussions do need to happen between leaders, between Ministers as well, and I hope that we will see China agree to that and do so, ideally, sooner rather than later. It doesn't need to wait for a visit, it can be done through virtual summits, phone calls or otherwise.

Kieran Gilbert: Okay, well, we saw that didn't we, with the Prime Minister meeting Narendra Modi in the last little while. They signed a new strategic partnership with the Indian Prime Minister and our Prime Minister. Is this the way forward for Australia in diversifying from the reliance on the China relationship, that we work more closely with middle powers like India?

Simon Birmingham: It's a continuance, Kieran. As a Government, over the last six years we've sought to expand, at every opportunity, the choices available to Australian exporters and Australian businesses about who they do business with. That's why we've pursued trade deals not only with China but also with Japan and the Republic of Korea, through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with a whole range of partner nations such as Vietnam, Canada, Mexico. And of course on July the fifth we'll celebrate the entry into force of the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.

With India we've been pursuing the India Economic Strategy, one of the most comprehensive pieces of work done around Australia's relationship with another nation. We've been working through the implementation of priority recommendations from that to strengthen our strategic relations and to strengthen our economic ties, and just in February this year I led a business delegation of more than 100 to India as part of our pursuit of the goals in that strategy.

Kieran Gilbert: We've had those goals for a long time, though, and India is notoriously protectionist. Are they moving on that front? Are they moving to take down some of the trade barriers?

Simon Birmingham: India, like every nation, has its challenges in terms of dealing with them and they have their different postures, and that's why we've taken a slightly different stance in the way in which we have pursued economic opportunity with India. We would certainly love to see a trade agreement that eliminated, like most of our other trade agreements, many of those traditional barriers around tariffs and quotas and provided clearly enhanced market access for Australian businesses. But we're not sitting still in the absence of that. We commissioned Peter Varghese to undertake his India Economic Strategy, we're getting on with implementing many of its key recommendations. We're building the literacy of Australian businesses when it comes to engaging with India. And through Prime Minister Morrison and Prime Minister Modi undertaking the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement last week what we've done is set in place a range of areas for cooperation, including in areas such as the development of critical minerals resources and how they can achieve mutually beneficial outcomes for both countries in growing an emerging industry here in Australia and fuelling further manufacturing and other opportunities within India.

Kieran Gilbert: Now, the Five Eyes network is traditionally an intelligence-sharing network between the US, UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. Apparently the nations are working towards, now, an economic discourse as we make our way out of this economic crisis. Can you explain the reasoning behind that? And is it basically to shore up supply chains, important industries, if we face another crisis down the track?

Simon Birmingham: We've had, of course, many deep discussions over the entire history of Australia with those four other partner countries. We are firmly like-minded nations in so many different ways and cooperate and collaborate in a whole raft of areas beyond just security cooperation inherent in the Five Eyes partnership. So this is building on those sorts of discussions. At a time of global crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we are naturally engaging around how we tackle and cooperate on the challenges faced by our nations and other nations of the world. How do we restore economic activity successfully? How do we get people back into jobs? How do we learn lessons out of this pandemic in terms of matters such as global supply chains and ensuring that we can have confidence in their diversity and confidence in their security into the future?

Kieran Gilbert: And given it is related to the supply chain issue as well, would that economic discussion not just include Treasurers but also Trade Ministers in terms of that Five Eyes framework?

Simon Birmingham: I have over recent months spoken with each of my Trade Ministerial counterparts across those four countries, done so both through various multilateral discussions, but also individually, and that's an important part of our ongoing collaboration. Whether that's talking about how we get the best outcome at the World Trade Organisation in terms of the type of transparency and rules, and our focus on ensuring that, yes, many countries of the world, as a result of the pandemic, have had to put in place temporary trade restrictions and measures to deal with medical supplies and sometimes to deal with food security issues. We want to make sure that those measures are temporary, are proportionate, are transparent in their application and are removed as soon as possible, whilst working to deal with other issues around future supply chain security and such important matters.

Kieran Gilbert: Would those discussions, though, be formalised within the Five Eyes framework? You said you've had the talks one to one and so on, but is that going to be formalised within that Five Eyes framework?

Simon Birmingham: I don't know that that'll necessarily be required, Kieran. I think the close cooperative partnership we have across each of those fellow English-speaking nations is obvious to all. They're not the only nations that we've increased dialogue and discussion with during this period of time. I've been working very closely with many of our regional partners. The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have been having increased dialogue with many other European nations, for example. This has been a time where although nobody's getting on planes and travelling around the world, the sharing of knowledge and discussions about how we tackle these common problems has elevated right across a whole range of partnerships around the globe.

Kieran Gilbert: Reports in the Sunday Telegraph today, Annika Smethurst reports that the Government is looking at slashing the quarantine period for business travellers to reboot business tourism, particularly from countries in our region that have done well on COVID-19. But potentially we might see quarantine periods slashed to reboot that particular part of the sector. Is that happening?

Simon Birmingham: There's a lot of contingency work being done at present to think about the different scenarios as we gradually seek to reopen all parts of the economy. We've seen, of course, the scale of that work at a domestic level, the COVIDSafe work practices that are being developed, the pursuit and encouragement of people to download the COVIDSafe app, to allow us to continue to have confidence in our ability to trace cases and potential spread of cases when they're identified in the future. And of course contingency work occurs in relation to think about how, when the circumstances allow and the health advice permits, we might open up further to other safe countries in the region.

The discussions between Prime Minister Morrison and Prime Minister Ardern of New Zealand about potentially opening up with New Zealand are well-publicised and known and we hope to see progress on that as our states and territories now hopefully move to dismantle their state borders and give New Zealand confidence to open up to Australia.

Kieran Gilbert: When will New Zealand, that trans-Tasman bubble, be established, do you think?

Simon Birmingham: I can't put a firm date on that. And obviously the New Zealand Government will make its own decisions in that regard. But I hope if we see other state leaders follow the leadership of South Australian Premier Steven Marshall in declaring that July 20 will be the date that SA opens its borders to all other states and territories, that that can give New Zealand confidence. There's a lot of background work required as well. How do our Border Force services make sure that they can stream through green lanes, if you like, people coming from New Zealand and give them confidence that as other flights arrive from destinations that have not been as successful in maintaining COVID and where citizens from those countries will have to go into the 14 days mandatory quarantine, how do we make sure that New Zealanders are protected in the management at our airports of those individuals. So there are complex logistical issues to be dealt with. We're working through those and when New Zealand's ready and we're ready, then we look forward to welcoming our Kiwi cousins back.

Kieran Gilbert: We sure do, and we'll wrap it up there, but thank you very much for spending this Sunday with us on your birthday. Happy birthday.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, KG, much appreciated.

Kieran Gilbert: Although your Crows didn't provide much of a birthday present last night.

Simon Birmingham: It was a bit of a miserable start to the weekend last night.

Kieran Gilbert: Thanks very much for starting this Sunday with us, appreciate it.

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