Press conference

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Victoria’s travel bubble with New Zealand, Australia-China trade relations; Clive Palmer High-Court challenge.
06 November 2020

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much for coming this afternoon. Firstly, I want to note the decision by Victoria to enable flights from New Zealand to come to Victoria. This will be the first occasion where international flights are welcomed back into Melbourne, traditionally Australia’s second busiest international airport. It’ll be the first occasion where we see them come back for many months. It will be a very happy day when we see international visitors safely returning to Melbourne because it will signal further progress on Victoria’s pathway back to a post-COVID normality. We all face many challenges and we know that Victorians and Melburnians have faced more than anybody else across Australia, and the opportunity to welcome people from New Zealand will be one to reunite loved ones with family members, to help restore business ties. And we hope that it, again, is a further step on the pathway to Australia-New Zealand relations becoming as open as possible.

I also want to comment specifically, as Trade Minister, in relation to the circumstances of Australia’s trade with China. There are many deeply troubling rumours about trade relations with China at present and deeply troubling rumours about the way in which particular categories of Australian exports to China could be treated in China by Chinese authorities. But I want to stress, these are predominantly rumours. These are often unconfirmed, unsubstantiated rumours. And I would urge people to treat them as such, to exercise caution and to not jump to conclusions at this point in time. It’s important for our exporters that we give them every possible support in terms of their engagement with relevant Chinese authorities and their business counterparts in China. The importers and customers who have such a huge demand for high quality Australian exports. We want to make sure they can all work through any issues and resolve them as effectively as possible.

As a government, we continue to give every possible assistance that we can at an administrative, diplomatic and political level to try to make sure that our exporters do retain the type of access they ought to have into China. Australia is a high quality producer of many valued goods and services. Goods and services that are highly valued by Chinese consumers, and it's been a partnership built up over a long period of time that provides benefits to both nations. Australia values our partnership with China, not just our economic partnership, but the cooperation we have had over many years in other fields and endeavours, such as cooperation in relation to health treatment, regional cooperation, scientific cooperation. These are important areas that we have worked together. And our ambition would be to see that we continue to work together in these sorts of areas, in manners that are respective of each other's sovereignty, in ways that acknowledge the fact that we aren't the same types of countries, we don't have the same types of democratic systems, or systems of government, but we have managed to work together to forge relations that are at a people-to-people level, a business-to-business level and even a government-to-government level have produced very positive outcomes for peoples across both our nations and right across the region that we share.

We note the fact that Chinese authorities have denied some of the rumours of instructions being given to businesses to ban Australian imports into China. We welcome those commitments and statements from Chinese authorities that these rumours do not have validity. What we hope to see is that, given the denials from Chinese authorities, they work as effectively as possible to help, where there are regulatory issues, resolve them in a timely way. Clearly it's unacceptable for precious, fragile cargo like live seafood to sit on a port for days on end waiting for clearance. We need swift action to address uncertainty for sectors like that. As I’ve said before, Australia's wine industry is one which is world-class, not only in the quality of wine produced but also in its economic practices. It’s not subsidised. It doesn't engage in dumping. It operates in a highly commercial environment, and that's why it is treasured not just in Australia but around the world. And so we hope that we can work through all of these issues. It would indeed reflect poorly, given the assurances that have been made, were these issues not to be satisfactorily resolved, so that the trade between our peoples and between our businesses can continue to be facilitated for the benefit of all.

Question: Is it likely, given the unofficial warning which had been circulating among industry groups and importers, that some further sanctions will be placed on Australian exports to China from today? Is that your expectation?

Simon Birmingham: These are questions and matters really for China. I note that Chinese authorities have given assurances, both publicly through their media spokespeople, and privately, that there is no concerted action of discrimination against Australia. And we want to make sure that they live up to those commitments. We hope and trust that in living up to those commitments, they do so in a manner that continues to facilitate beneficial trade for businesses in China as it is for businesses in Australia.

Question: Is it true that the Government’s convening an emergency roundtable with industry experts to try to break into other export markets?

Simon Birmingham: No. The Government works with industry continuously. And in terms of diversification and market expansion opportunities, we've been pursuing those through our entire seven years in office. That’s why we've pursued trade agreements, not just with China but also with Japan, with Korea, through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with countries like Vietnam, Canada, Mexico, most recently with Indonesia, and are actively pursuing trade agreements with the European Union and the UK. This is all about giving more options to Australian exporters. We've done so continuously for years even as we pursue the trade agreement with China because we realise that the best environment for our exporters to operate in is one in which they have the maximum number of choices available to them.

Question: So there’s no emergency roundtable convening right now?

Simon Birmingham: No. We continuously talk to industry, industries of all different types. Of course, sectors who, right now, are concerned understandably given the media speculating and the rumours circulating about their trade with China, are getting the Government’s attention in terms of ongoing dialogue and discussion with them about how they respond to that and how we help them in terms of their access to other markets. That's the type of action that everybody would expect us to pursue. But it’s not in the context of an emergency roundtable. It’s in the context of a government that has, for seven years, sought to open new market opportunities for businesses from Australia right around the world and continues to talk to all those industry groups about how we give them maximum support to access markets, be it in China or anywhere else.

Question: Given the lack of contact with your Chinese counterpart, do you think you'll ever get a response from China about what’s happening with Australian exports?

Simon Birmingham: Again, it really is a matter for China. It is disappointing that Chinese authorities refuse to engage in a ministerial level. From Australia’s perspective, our door remains open to work with and talk to our Chinese counterparts. We want to engage in a manner that is respectful of one another, that advances our areas of mutual interests, but also acknowledges the fact that, yes, we have points of difference. We have had for decades. We will have into the future. But it doesn't mean that we can't manage to advance the areas of mutual and beneficial interest to one another. And now, in terms of contact from Chinese ministers or with Chinese ministers and Australian ministers, the ball is very much in China's court. The Australian Government stands willing to have that type of mature, responsible dialogue, and we would welcome that being reciprocated by our counterparts.

Question: How many jobs are at risk if Australian goods continue to be blocked from export into China?

Simon Birmingham: China is Australia's largest trading partner, but we have equally phenomenal growth in terms of Australian exports enter other regional markets like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. We see enormous opportunities in countries like in Indonesia and India. We're pursuing trade agreements with the UK and the EU. Yes, there is always a threat to individual businesses from market disruption that may occur as a result of the types of decisions that a government elsewhere could make. But what we’ve tried to do is create the best possible circumstance for Australian businesses to be able to pivot. And our diplomatic and trade teams across the globe will continue to work with those Australian businesses where they need to pivot, and to help them to do so if that eventuates. And equally as always, to help them to expand in those markets. These are not actions that we just do at this point in time as a result of certain rumours. They are actions in terms of the opportunities of pursuing trade expansion and new business avenues overseas that we pursue on a day-to-day basis across every Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade post and every Austrade post right around the globe.

Question: What’s your response to Clive Palmer losing his High Court challenge against the WA hard border?

Simon Birmingham: Look, this is a matter that was a case between Clive Palmer and the West Australian Government. We will, of course, review the detailed judgement and findings when they're available to the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth did not ultimately participate in that case. We accepted the request of the Western Australian Government not to participate. But in terms of borders, can I say that I welcome, very much, the decision by Premier McGowan to partially open up Western Australia's borders to some other jurisdictions, and to do so ahead of what he had previously said he would do. And I hope that that type of common-sense, evidence-based approach continues as he looks at reconnecting WA with the rest of the country.

Because as we can safely do so, and recognising now that all states and territories across Australia firmly appear to have COVID back under control, then what we really want to see is that farmers can shift their produce across the country at lower cost, that loved ones can be reconnected, that holiday-makers can help our tourism and travel industry get off its knees and back on to its feet. And all of those things depend upon having open borders. They should only open where it's safe to do so. That's why the Commonwealth has supported the quarantining of Victoria. But as their situation is under control, we should be able to reconnect the nation, and certainly to do so by Christmas as the Prime Minister has outlined as the ambition.

Question: You mentioned Western Australia there- West Australia. Mark McGowan, the Premier, has just- earlier today said that it is up to the Federal Government to repair the relationship with China. He said urgently for the sake of jobs. Has the Australian Government actually done anything that could offend China?

Simon Birmingham: I don't believe the Australian Government has. We have acted always in Australia's best interests, just as any sovereign nation does. We respect the right of nations around the world to protect their critical infrastructure, to protect their communication systems, to have appropriate laws in relation to managing issues of foreign interference, or indeed making sure that foreign investment is truly in their national interest. Those are issues the Australian Government has pursued, just as those are issues that governments right around the world, be they in China, across Asia, or any other part of the world, pursue.

I would hope and trust that Labor Premiers like Premier McGowan, Labor Shadow Ministers, indeed the federal Labor leader, aren't in any way suggesting that Australia should compromise on our sovereignty, our security, our values when we engage with other nations. We should always stand true to protecting those interests, but we do so in a manner that is respectful of other nations around the world and that is certainly the approach we take when it comes to our engagement with China, our largest trading partner, with the United States, our largest investment partner, and with any other partners we have around the world.

Question: But is it possible that China’s trying to create uncertainty within its Australian export market?

Simon Birmingham: There’s little doubt that the number of regulatory actions and decisions taken by China during the course of this year, such as the anti-dumping duties on barley, the restrictions on meat processing plants, a number of the other interventions such as the holding up of the flow of live lobsters through Chinese ports heightened the risk and uncertainty for Australian businesses exporting to China, and for Chinese businesses importing from Australia. It does cut both ways. And that heightened risk environment then, of course, changes the balance for those businesses in terms of who they trade with. The best outcome would be for China, who has created these uncertainties, to act in a way that helps to ameliorate those uncertainties so that trade can flow freely and consistent with all of the undertakings we've given to one another.

Question: Just in relation to Chinese measures being declared [inaudible]… elsewhere when it comes to trade. [Indistinct] necessary, if not forthcoming, is the Australian Government being at all disrespectful, then how frustrating has it been for you not being able to forge a direct relationship with your counterpart in China?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t think that I, or frankly the Government leadership, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, could be any more respectful in our language, in our approach and in extending, very much, the hand of friendship, highlighting the fact that the door is open to respectful mutual engagement. The Australian government will sit down and pursue that respectful mutual engagement whenever China is willing to do so and we urge them to come to the table and do so.

Thanks, guys. Cheers.

[END]

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