Topics: Labor Government flip-flopping on reasons to test Chinese travellers;

01:05PM ACDT
4 January 2023


Joe Hildebrand: This COVID cluster that the government has managed to orchestrate almost despite itself, is now starting to haunt the government. Already China is threatening payback and of course we know that China sabre rattles and doesn’t need much provocation to do all sorts of stupid and non-rules based things to Australia. But still it is a mess of the Government’s making. And so what could the actual repercussions be? Well, someone who might know a thing or two is the former trade minister and the current Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham, and he joins me on the line right now. Good day, Simon. How are you? Welcome.


Simon Birmingham: G’day, Joe. Great to be with you. Happy New Year to you and your listeners.


Joe Hildebrand: Happy New Year to you as well and I know you’re on holidays and you’ve broken that up to speak to us so, thank you very much. Really appreciate it.


Simon Birmingham: My pleasure. I’ll give a big plug to the Smiling Samoyed Brewery in Myponga, where I’m about to go and have lunch with the family. So anybody who wants a regional South Australian trip from Sydney, get along.


Joe Hildebrand: Fantastic. Well, I won’t keep you from that beer or your family too long. But what- I mean, we all look, we all know that China is very quick to feign offence at the slightest possible thing. But do they actually have a point here, given that it appears that the Health Minister has misrepresented the advice that he was given and has made this decision on the basis of, for want of a better word, nothing.


Simon Birmingham: So, the statement made by the Chinese Foreign Ministry overnight is notable for the fact that it seems to, without directly referencing Australia, essentially quote the situation in Australia. Which as it’s been revealed, is that the Albanese Government has acted against the advice of the Chief Medical Officer here and that’s why it is so perplexing and concerning that Anthony Albanese doesn’t seem to be fronting the cameras or hitting the airwaves himself to explain why they’ve ignored the advice of the Chief Medical Officer. Why it is that they have flip flopped in their position over the course of the last week or so, and just what the actual rationale for it is, because the story just seems to keep changing.


Joe Hildebrand: Yeah, this is the thing. Again, I’ve got no problem with Australia sticking up for its national interest, protecting its national interest, protecting its security, protecting its borders, but do it in a way that’s evidence based and transparent. Don’t pretend you’re doing it for one reason or on the advice of an expert, only to have that expert well, not directly, but by some surreptitious means or another coming out the very next day and say no, this is the opposite of what I said. And therefore, have our credibility as a nation completely collapsed in front of the Chinese eyes.


Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s it. From the 1st of February 2020, which was when the decision was made to close Australia’s international borders to China, back when the first cases of movement had been detected, the couple of months that ensued, and concerns were heightening. And at the time I was trade and tourism minister and there was little of concern to me more as trade and tourism ministers than of course the decision to close our borders to our largest trading partner, our largest tourism destination, our largest destination for international students to come to Australia and it was really consequential. But from that day onward, whether it was Scott Morrison or Greg Hunt or myself or a range of ministers, we were out there relevant to our different roles, explaining the difficult decisions that were being made, but also always doing our best to do them consistent with the health advice that was being provided to us at the time. And not everybody agreed with all of the decisions made, and not all of them were perfect decisions with the wonderful benefit of hindsight. But we did try to make sure they were informed by that health advice and that’s the perplexing thing. Just a few days ago, Anthony Albanese was saying we don’t need to do anything because the health advice indicates that China is having essentially a standard COVID wave, the likes of which Australia was having 12 months ago when we shut when we opened up the state borders and saw the delta wave move right through Australia, and then that changed. Everybody assumed it changed because the health advice had changed, but then it was revealed that indeed the health advice hadn’t changed. The government itself had just changed its mind and then they’ve had various versions of stories since then where they say it’s out of an abundance of caution. But everybody knows the role of the Chief Medical Officer is to apply caution in the advice they provide. So, one doesn’t really stack up. And then they say to get better data. Yet the restrictions they’ve put in place will provide no data whatsoever.


Joe Hildebrand: No data at all. That’s right. And as a number of people have said, given that these tests are going to be performed before the person leaves China and there is no faith in the Chinese testing regime anyway. Who’s to even say that these negative tests would even be verifiable, even though it would make no difference anyway, because we’ve still got COVID in our community already. But leaving that aside is, do you think that this could derail, for example, the proposed deal on the table for China to lift its embargoes against barley, wine, beef and other exports in exchange for Australia dropping its case in the WTO? Or does the sort of language you’re seeing out of Beijing now and, you know, things like payback and those sorts of retaliatory words, do you think that that deal must now be put on ice?


Simon Birmingham: It’s always hard to read too much into how the Chinese system will respond, and you alluded to that in your introduction in terms of where sometimes the rhetoric from mouthpieces like the Global Times in China goes a lot further than the actions. But I think it is a concern that, and notable the way in which China has commented overnight, and the way that they have referenced the type of circumstances that have played out here in Australia. As a government previously, we had to make some really difficult decisions in terms of foreign interference laws and how we tighten those and strengthening our foreign investment framework, making tough decisions about Huawei’s role and the telecommunications network and all of those types of provisions were obviously ones that caused a reaction in China and a negative one. But they were decisions taken in the long-term national interest, and we made sure we explained them clearly to the Australian people as well. And that’s why here it’s a concern those explanations are lacking. As for what China does, well, of course I would still hope, and I do continue to wish the government well in trying to get those unjustified and unfair trade sanctions lifted and they should come off as quickly as possible. But these circumstances, whether they hinder, remains to be seen, but they certainly won’t help.


Joe Hildebrand: There you go. Look, Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for joining us on Afternoons. I’ll let you get back to that beer and to your family and to your holidays now, but we really appreciate you taking a quick break to join us.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Joe. My pleasure, mate.