National Press Club Q&A

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Economic impacts of COVID-19 in Australia; International and domestic tourism; Australian trade relationships.
17 June 2020

Sabra Lane: Minister, if I could just pick up on the last points about tourism? Beyond the Australian-New Zealand travel bubble that's being planned, when can you see a time that the borders might be freely open to all comers to Australia, to both come and go? And how much support might the tourism industry need beyond the JobKeeper being wound up in September?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Sabra. I think we have to acknowledge first and foremost that, for Australia a huge part of our success in suppressing the spread of COVID was the placement of the international border restrictions. And I want to pay tribute and extend thanks to the many, particularly tourism, businesses who have borne the brunt of that cost of closing down international travel. They should be proud, though, that they have helped to save lives of Australians - and it is that real in terms of the impact. Sadly, though, keeping those border restrictions largely in place is a price we’re going to have to pay to keep COVID under control and that means international border restrictions are likely to be there for some time to come.

We will progressively and carefully step through what we can do to reopen. That's what talks with New Zealand are about, and I hope we can see that advance. And it will happen faster if Australian states open up to each other faster as well.

I hope that, beyond that, we can see the pilots of international students, those who are coming to our country for longer stays occur successfully and achieve the success there of their re-entry.

And if we can do those things, well then we may be able to have discussions about other parameters, for other longer stay visitors, or perhaps targeted streams of individuals from nations that, like New Zealand, have had similar success to us in containing the spread of COVID. But it's going to take time and they will each be careful steps to work through - not only the arrangements with each of those other countries, but also the practical logistics of how we manage our airports and our Border Force and make sure that we keep those entering those environs as safe as possible.

Sabra Lane: Andrew Tillett.

Question: Andrew Tillett from the Financial Review. Thanks for your speech, Minister. I feel like I am in a spelling bee standing here.

Simon Birmingham: I could test you if you like.

Question: On China - you mentioned in your speech, obviously, about that you'd - Australia won't sort of give up sovereignty and things like that. Your colleague, Senator Payne, obviously made a pretty strong-worded speech last night again about China, including China. The Global Times and Chinese Foreign Ministry is not afraid to sort of tell Australia what we need to do in terms of, I guess, accommodating their sort of desires and wishes. What is your message for China? What does, sort of, China need to do to recognise and respect Australia’s sovereignty and position? Given the poor state of the relationship, how does it sort of get righted if, as you say, Australia’s not going to move? What does China need to do to move?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Andrew. I think the simple answers to that equation are that we have to respect each other’s differences. We are a very different nation to China - we're a democratic nation and they're not. We have greater civil liberties and a range of ways that aren't available there and we have different cultures and backgrounds. But those differences, if we understand them and respect them, and in doing so respect the sovereignty and integrity of each other, mean that we can then get on with proper dialogue around the areas where our partnership does work to our mutual advantage. And that is the key part about, especially, the trading relationship. It has been a relationship of mutual advantage that has helped to fuel the growth - not only of Australia's economy, but also of China's economy.

I have said many times before that I think the greatest economic miracle of most of the lives of people in this room has been the rise of China and the South-East Asian region because it's lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And Scott Morrison stands as our Prime Minister and talks about the need for a strong economy, he always brings it back to the fact that a strong economy means jobs for Australians, mean health, and aged care, and education services, and the social safety net that we rely upon.

And the beauty of the economic growth we've seen in a place like China, and its spread across our region, from their decisions to open up their economy has been that it's lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and created new opportunities. And it's been fuelled, in part, by Australian resources and by that overall openness between the two. We want to see that continue, because that's good for us, it's good for the Chinese people, it's good for the people across our region. To deal with differences though, you do need to talk. We stand ready to talk and to work through those differences - not by trading away any of our values and not by compromising on our policy, but by getting back to the basics of respect for each other's sovereignty, respect for each other in terms of how we can achieve that mutual benefit - and let's sit down and have that proper, thorough dialogue.

Sabra Lane: Before I take the next question can I ask all our journalists: stay at the microphone until the Minister finishes answering the question and please, one question per person so we can get through everyone. Claire Bickers.

Question: Minister, thank you for your speech. Claire Bickers from The Adelaide Advertiser. Can you talk us through more about who might be next cabs off the rank after international students? Pilots are started next month. Will it be business workers? Could we see the return of seasonal workers for farmers? And which countries might go first?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Claire. I think there is a certain logic that extends to say that international students and other categories of visitors to Australia who stay here for a longer period of time can more easily be accommodated because we can simply work through the 14-day quarantine periods that have worked so well in terms of returning Australians to this country safely to date. Now even today, I see a large number of new COVID cases reported out of Victoria. But of the 21 that are there, 15 of them are people who are in quarantine. Part of the regulated process of return and they’ve been identified as having COVID in an environment where they pose little to no risk to other Australians and allow us to manage that circumstance of returning Australians. International students are the long-stay visitors who go through a similar process, obviously it can be done in a way that achieves the same type of safeguards as we've managed for those returning Australian citizens. So, yes, I think those who might not only be international students, but be here for longer term work purposes or longer-term business and investment purposes, logically you can extend those sort of same safeguards to them and their stay.

In terms of other countries and how we look at shorter-term visitation, that becomes much more challenging once you move beyond New Zealand. But not impossible and I hope that we can look eventually at some of those countries who have similar successes in suppressing the spread of COVID to Australia and New Zealand. And in working through that with those countries, find safe pathways to deal with essential

business travel that helps to contribute to jobs across our economies. But I do, sadly, think that in terms of open tourist-related travel in or out of Australia, that remains quite some distance off, just because of the practicalities of the volumes that are involved and the need for us to first and foremost keep putting health first.

Sabra Lane: That sounded more like next year not this year, isn't it?

Simon Birmingham: Honestly, Sabra, I think that is more likely the case.

Sabra Lane: Stephen Dziedzic.

Question: Hi, Minister, Stephen Dziedzic from ABC. Can I ask first about the CECA, the free trade deal with India? The two prime ministers announced couple of weeks ago that Australia and India would resume discussions on that. Can I clarify, does that mean we'll soon see a new round of negotiations on CECA? A formal resumption of negotiations? And given India's hesitancy to accommodate some of our market access demands over many years now, have we received any indication from the Indian government that they’re willing to give substantive ground?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Stephen. The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed between Prime Minister Morrison and Prime Minister Modi at the virtual summit last week - I think it was a week before - was a significant step forward in a whole range of aspects in the relationship. Not just strategic or security or cooperation in fields of science, endeavour, but also economic. And regardless of the CECA, the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, we should recognise the fact that areas of that CSP that focus on cooperation in rare earths, minerals, scientific endeavour, all of that will help to strengthen and grow the economic partnership. And they build upon our India Economic Strategy, which was a recognition that perhaps we weren't going to deepen the economic ties within India to the extent we wish in the same traditional way as we had with other nations, and that we needed to commit to building greater literacy in terms of economic relations with India, and to deepen the relationship in a whole range of ways that could allow business to follow in from that. And I think we're seeing success there in terms of the growth in trade with India, and the delivery of those recommendations, and the more than 100 businesses and universities and others who joined me in visiting India earlier this year were a testament to the opportunity that people are seeing and realising.

In terms of the FTA itself, we would like to see a comprehensive and ambitious trade agreement struck between Australia and India, and the CECA provides a potential pathway to do that. Whether or not we move to full negotiations, depends on some scoping work and some analysis of whether we each share the same degree of ambition for that to be a fully comprehensive and ambitious trade agreement.

We made some exceptional progress between Australia and India as part of the RCEP negotiations, the 16-nation regional bloc. And though we are disappointed it will now only be a 15-nation bloc initially without India, I think there is much we could build upon between the Australia-India negotiations that took place in RCEP. And if we can build upon that, then a bilateral agreement with India would be possible and potential for the future.

Sabra Lane: You are talking with India in regards to China, as you say, to talk about your differences, you actually need to talk. How frustrating it is it for you – because I know that you asked- I think it was more than a month ago to talk to your counterpart in China - have you actually spoken yet and how frustrating is it? I'm presuming you haven't - that you haven't been able to have that conversation?

Simon Birmingham: You presume correct, Sabra. Look, it is... It is- it’s frustrating, it's more disappointing in the sense that I think it is lost opportunity. Consistent with the answer that I gave earlier and the best way to resolve and to work through differences is through dialogue, and Australia is ready, and willing, to have that mature, sensible dialogue that grown-ups have even when you have differences of opinion. And that doesn't mean that we're going, as I said before, to change our values or to compromise on our policies, but it means that we should be able to get back to the basics of looking at the areas that are mutually beneficial to us, where we can agree with one another and get on with a discussion and work to enhance and grow the relationship in those positive areas.

And I think international education has stood as one of those great examples. Not just of Chinese students studying in Australia, but of the work that we’ve made through New Colombo and through other measures to encourage Australians to better understand China. And that’s important about building the longer-term cultural understanding and people-to-people ties across each nation. And we want to see all of those things actually succeed for the long-term good of both countries because whether we all like it or not, we share the same dynamic region of the world, the geography isn't going to change. We're going to be sharing this region together forever and we want to make sure that so far as it can be it is a positive relationship not just for the benefit of our two nations, but for all of the nations in this region.

Sabra Lane: Ben Packham.

Question: Hi Minister, Ben Packham from The Australian. I would like to ask a variation on the theme. What is the way forward for the China relationship? I know this is a subject that DFAT spent thousands and thousands of hours thinking about. Former China diplomat Richard Rigby says things won't change while Xi Jinping is still in power. Do you agree with that? And if not, how do we avoid this situation becoming the new normal?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Ben. You know, I received the question earlier about comments that are made in the Global Times or through MFA press briefings. Sometimes I see that those comments are urging Australia not to interfere in China's domestic affairs. I don't believe that we do. And in not doing so, I'm not about to pass commentary on China's political leadership. I think the best thing that we can do as a Government is to make sure that, where possible – and it again goes back to the question of dialogue with one another - where possible we have those direct discussions about our differences, sitting across a table from one another or picking up the phone to one another, and not necessarily playing it out in full public view.

It is for the Chinese Government to determine how they run China and China's policy, and we respect that, just as we expect them to respect the sovereignty of Australia and our rights to run Australian policy in our national interest.

Sabra Lane: Kirsty Needham.

Question: Kirsty Needham from Reuters. Minister, you’ve mentioned that non-tariff barriers, the new frontier of trade agreements, Australia will try and address these as it diversifies its agreements around the world. But China is also upgrading its agreements with partners like New Zealand to cover non-tariff barriers. It covers things like customs delay, digital certification. These are the areas where Australian producers are getting into strife in the current difficulties with China. So, has Australia given up on negotiating an upgraded free trade agreement with China?

Simon Birmingham: I don't give up on anything, Kirsty. Look, I hope that we can get to that point. There is a scheduled review and process for looking at ChAFTA in due course. It's not a particularly old trade agreement, so far as these things go. The US-Australia FTA was signed back in the Howard Government and marks its 15th anniversary this year. There’s probably some things we could seek to upgrade there too. ChAFTA, of course, was signed by the Abbott Government and is a much newer and more modern agreement in that sense.

You know, there are definitely opportunities we would like to pursue in terms of further dialogue, not just to deal with the issues that we have been asked about already today, but absolutely, looking at new opportunities for cooperation and it would be wonderful to get that point of being able to have that dialogue. Certainly, if you look at Australia's share of trade, as I said in the speech covered by free trade agreements, we’ve grown it from around 26 per cent of Australian exports and trade to around 70 per cent over our time in office. Logically, that means, as more and more of our trade is covered by FTAs and achieves the elimination or reduction of tariffs and quotas and preferential access that comes with those trade agreements, then the other bugbears become more important to resolve.

Now, our Indonesia agreement was an important breakthrough there and it enters into force on 5 July, in that it has some dedicated processes for Australia and Indonesia to work through those non-tariff barriers as part of that agreement. And that's one of the breakthrough agreements that we've had and we hope that provides a model for either future agreements or renegotiation of existing ones.

Sabra Lane: Lanai Scar.

Question: Lanai Scar from The West Australia. Thanks for your speech, Minister. You mentioned critical minerals, hydrogen and the resources sector, as being key to Australia's exports. A lot of businesses in those sectors rely heavily on investment from China. So, would you like to see more or less investment from China in Australian businesses over the next year?

Simon Birmingham: We welcome investment that is squarely in Australia's national interest. And that's why, as a government, we have strengthened our foreign investment laws and the Treasurer released recently with the Prime Minister details for a further modernisation of those national investment laws. And what we're seeking to do through that further modernisation is to still be an open and welcoming country for investment. In fact, we want to make sure that in some cases, investment approvals can be sped up and achieved more efficiently and effectively and more predictably, because predictability is a key part of business decisions around whether or not to invest. And if we can enhance that predictability for certain segments of investment, then it should flow faster and better into the future.

But we also need to protect our national interest and recognise the changing nature of what may be assessed as in our national interest or not in our national interest. And dynamics of technology and so on do change the nature of that compared with how you would have assessed these things decades ago. And that's why we're updating on all sides of the ledger. We firmly want to see foreign investment continue to build Australian capital and opportunity. And that includes foreign investment from China, but whether it's from China or the United States or the United Kingdom or any other part of the world, it's got to pass the national interest test that we set for it, which are consistent tests complied consistently across all of our partners.

Sabra Lane: Brett Mason.

Question: Brett Mason from SBS. My question isn't about China. I was hoping to direct you from one extreme of the Pacific to the other. You've spoken about dialogue being the most important part of a bilateral relationship. One of the topics that hasn't been up for discussion with the United States is Julian Assange. Do you believe the WikiLeaks founder should be extradited for prosecution in the United States?

Simon Birmingham: Brett, I believe that is a matter rightly determined by the British courts, and on the day in which we start negotiating our free trade agreement with the United Kingdom, I would strongly stand by the independence of the judiciary in the UK, and acknowledge that probably one of the great legacies that Australia has inherited from the United Kingdom is indeed that independence of judiciary and the judgement and decision making that it makes, and I'll back them to make the right decision.

Sabra Lane: Anthony Galloway.

Question: Anthony Galloway from the Sydney Morning Herald. Thanks for the speech, Minister. Wondering if I can ask about the Belt and Road initiative. Some members of your government have been quite critical of the Victorian Government for signing its agreement, but it remains the case that your predecessor signed an agreement in 2017 covering Australia’s potential commitment in third party countries. Is it the case that that fact is a bit embarrassing for the Australian Government? Can you confirm that that MOU signed in 2017 will never progress past an MOU?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Anthony, I'm not as pessimistic as you in that regard. As I've said many times, you know, Australia welcomes the opportunity to cooperate on infrastructure investments with other countries, in third countries where it is in the interests of that third country, where it's valuable infrastructure and investment, where it respects the sovereignty of that third country, and where it is financially suitable and appropriate for that third country. So, our position there, whether it is with China or others, is a consistent one around the parameters on which we see good infrastructure investment or the like taking place in partnership with other countries in developing nations or the like. In terms of the difference between a national government, signing an agreement, and a state or territory government signing an agreement, well, I think that goes to the fundamental premise of the fact that the Australian Government sets Australian foreign policy in our engagement with other nations, and it shouldn't be outsourced or run on a separate track by state or territory governments.

Sabra Lane: Daniel Hurst.

Question: Minister, Daniel Hurst from Guardian Australia. Just following up the announcement on the UK FTA talks. Given that the EU is much larger market, is the EU deal a bigger priority for Australia? Why or why not? And, secondly, which of the two - the UK one or the EU one - do you think is most likely to be concluded first? Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. Well, I don't have any favoured children in that regard. I want to love them both equally and I hope that they both come home as trade deals that we can deliver and can be loved equally. Yes, the EU is a much bigger market, and notwithstanding Brexit, it remains a much bigger market. But that doesn't mean that the UK is not a significant market. It's 67 million people. It too is a G20 country. It's got a bigger economy than ours. That means it presents significant opportunities for us and, as I noted in the speech, back at the time that the UK entered into the European economic community, it was our third largest goods trading market. It's now our 12th. Now, I don't, expect that we’re going to see a return necessarily to the volumes of trade we had back in the 1970s. Because since then, our farmers and exporters have found many markets that have themselves grown much, much bigger in that intervening 40-50 years within the Indo-Pacific region. But there's definitely room for upside.

Take just, for example, a success we have with the UK. Australian wine. One in five bottles of wine that is sold in the UK is Australian wine. But we've reached that point of success in the UK market while paying- while consumers pay a tariff on those wines. They don't pay a tariff on French or Spanish or Italian wines. Just on Australian wines. And so, if we can achieve elimination of that tariff, that is going to either mean that our winemakers can get perhaps a bigger margin and enjoy slightly greater profits, or that they can be even more competitive in that market. And so, it's well worth pursuing.

Timing – look, I want to see them both completed as quickly as possible. Hopefully, we might see a little bit of competitive tension in that mix of running them both at the same time. We have said that we would love to see them concluded this year. That would be beneficial in terms of the final stages of Brexit, but it’s also a very short time frame and so we will do everything we can. But ultimately, it will only be concluded, whether it's the EU or the UK, when it's a good deal that is in our best interests.

Sabra Lane: Mark Kenny.

Question: Mark Kenny, Minister, from the ANU and from the Press Club board. I want to ask you- or I’d like to ask you about higher education and why is the largest non-export sector- export sector of the economy, it hasn't really got much of a profile in your speech today. But I don't want to be accused of talking my own book, so let me take another page of my own book.

Simon Birmingham: This is a way of having two questions without asking two questions.

Question: Very cleverly spotted. Let me talk another page of my own book which happens to be a page of your book and Sabra’s, and I notice Frances Adamson over there as well. That is the South Australian book. What’s your response to the Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, today who has said: why visit South Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I did see Daniel Andrews’ comments, and I think they are a desperate distraction from the endemic corruption occurring in the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party. And that Daniel Andrews, rather than going out and seeking to try to get one of those great headline-grabbing distractions of state versus state rivalry, should have much bigger issues to deal with. And on a more positive note, I'd encourage everybody to come and visit South Australia. July 20, I'm thrilled that Steven Marshall has opened the borders. And there are many exceptional experiences and attractions to come and visit. And indeed, there are quite a few good advocates in Sabra and Frances and others here today - and yourself Mark - and I am sure we can all share our favoured experiences with you.

Look, in terms of higher education, as to take your non-first question very briefly. As I emphasised in the speech today, I think our successful management of COVID actually will stand as a key selling point, alongside the relative peace and stability and harmony of Australia when compared with some of our major competitors in this space. And I wish in a sense that those potential advantages didn't exist. I would wish that we saw greater peace and harmony around the world and that we didn't have COVID. But in the end, Australia relative to some of those other major English language competitors in the higher education space has managed COVID far better, and is demonstrating a greater sense of peace and harmony and inclusion in our society. Not perfect. Plenty of work still to be done in those spaces. But I think when we go back out into that international education market, there is actually a very strong positive story for us to sell, and I want the study Australia story to fully encapsulate those successes of Australia.

Sabra Lane: We’re almost out of time, and we know because it’s Parliament sitting day you need to get back for Question Time. So, our last question is from Tim Shaw.

Question: Minister, Tim Shaw from…

Simon Birmingham: One Question Time to another.

Question: …National Press Club board. You’ve spoken about diversifying exports and the global trade architecture. Isn't that what the Chinese did back in 2015? Made in China 2025? Your last White Paper was 2016. What will you and your department do in terms of resourcing Austrade with boots on the ground to be able to maximise the opportunities you have spoken about today? It's not just barley, wine, education and tourism. Those secondary manufacturing industries. What extra resources will Austrade need?

Simon Birmingham: There are great opportunities for our advanced manufacturing sector. When I look at the way they’ve responded to COVID, and we have seen that those who made gin have started to make hand sanitiser. Those who made fast food wrappers have started to make face masks. And what that demonstrates is you don't necessarily in this debate about what capabilities countries need, have to have specific businesses making specific things. Because if you pick too many winners in that space, you will be sure to be picking some losers of things that you never actually need again in the future. What you want is a critical mass of capability. Because you have that- if you have that critical capability across a field like advanced manufacturing, then you're actually able to see them pivot and adapt and change to the opportunities or to the needs of the time. And we’ve seen that adaptation occur. I think we can see through the opportunities being created in our growing defence industry and in our growing space industry, the potential for more advanced manufacturers to thrive in Australia. And even if our food manufacturing space, where I reference the opportunity to move along the value curve, right into prepackaged meals. That, again, takes technical sophistication and capability in terms of how you do that, that can be spread in many different ways.

Obviously then, there's the marketing and the promotion piece of the puzzle. And Austrade play a very important role there. The nation brand that we expect Austrade and what others to use is about projecting a picture of a more confident Australia out to the world, and doing so in a more consistent way, and we will obviously be getting Austrade to use that and to build its relationships and partnerships – not just across our region, but right around the world in terms of how they help to promote all of those different sectors into the future.

Sabra Lane: Everybody, please join me in thanking the Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister, Simon Birmingham.

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