• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Tariff on Australian barley; Discussion on state borders reopening.
19 May 2020

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along. Australia is deeply disappointed by the decision of China to impose duties on Australian barley exports into China. This decision we believe is one that is not based on either good analysis of facts or law, and we will reserve and do reserve all our rights in terms of how we appeal this decision, how we continue to fight to defend the integrity of our farmers and our barley exporting industry. It is crucial that we recognise that Australian farmers are among the best in the world and that they go out to the world and manage to sell Australian grains and Australian produce, free of subsidy and at competitive prices and at high quality simply because they are some of the best farmers around who are incredibly productive, are incredibly resilient and do produce valuable product for the world.

China’s decision is one that does concern us deeply because it appears to have been based and without a proper understanding of the facts or the evidence, it just doesn’t stack up in terms of any analysis of Australian farming and our barley production to suggest that our exporters engage in dumping of products or unduly subsidised.

We’re going to take some time to talk with industry while together with the farming sector, we thoroughly analyse the details of this case and the determination that China’s made, so that we construct the best pathway forward to appeal the decision, to get the decision reversed and we want to make sure that is done in a calm way in the best interests of all parts of Australian farmers, but in particular our barley producers. In the meanwhile, we’re going to work damn hard with those barley producers to make sure we find alternative markets for them to make sure that when this year’s crop is harvested they’re able to get it out onto the world market as they always do so successfully, and we have our new free trade agreement coming online with Indonesia on 5 July that provides some opportunities, to send the message out to all our trade and diplomatic posts around the world to make sure that they continue their efforts as they do to find new market opportunities for Australian farmers.

Question: Is this a sudden reaction from China to events, some sort of salvo in a trade war?

Simon Birmingham: China has been clear for some time now that this is an 18-month long investigation and process. We’ve respected that process, we’ve engaged thoughtfully right throughout that process. Australia has submitted more than 10,000 pages of evidence demonstrating that our barley farmers do nothing other than operate on commercial terms when they engage in the Chinese market, and we’ll continue to prosecute that case strongly.

Question: Do you really believe this was not in any way related to Australia’s push for an independent investigation into how COVID-19 started?

Simon Birmingham: I can understand why people draw those links, particularly given the unhelpful comments of the Chinese Ambassador to Australia a few weeks ago. In the end, China denies there’s a link, the only thing we can do in defence of our farmers is to engage in the process as constructively as we can, that’s what we’ve done with Australian industry to date and we now enter a new phase in terms of analysing how we can appeal, what steps we can take and we’re going to do that with the same determination we’ve shown in defending the rights of our farmers up to now.

Question: Have you been in contact with your Chinese counterpart?

Simon Birmingham: I think it’s very disappointing that China has to date refused to schedule minister to minister discussions, Australia is always up for a conversation with any of our global counterparts, we do so even when issues are difficult, even when we may have disagreements, because the best way to resolve disagreements or to work through difficult issues is to talk about them, and that’s why we’re up for a discussion and it’s disappointing that others aren’t up for it.

Question: Given the- there’s the 18 month lead up which you made the point about, but there’s also the time and context of this announcement by China. I mean, it would be fair for Australian farmers to be livid about this?

Simon Birmingham: The decision was always due by today, and so from the minute it started 18 months ago, the deadline for a decision was today, so there is some coincidence that exists around the timing. As I say, others can debate whether or not there’s a linkage. As Australia’s Trade Minister, my job is to put the best foot forward in defence of our farmers and exporters, and that’s what we’re going to do in terms of continuing to defend their behaviour and their work and their hard work and to make sure we stand up for Aussie farmers and Aussie jobs.

Question: So there’s no mea culpa to Australian farmers on part of the Australian Federal Government in this mess?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve worked very closely with the farming sector right through this investigation and of course we do so all of the time, our farming sector is not only highly productive in the work they do on the land, they’re also quite sophisticated in their business and trade deals. They understand that there are risks that come with trade globally and we work closely with them to try to minimise those risks. But I don’t see our farmers ever suggesting that we should compromise on our values or change our policies when it comes to national security or public health issues and they want to see a strong and secure Australia too.

Question: What about the issues that the Chinese present about the subsidies and how they use the context of the farm allowance and payments out of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. How did they come to those conclusions and how have you not been able to sort of set them straight on that in 18 months?

Simon Birmingham: It’s completely ridiculous to be listing things like the Murray-Darling Basin infrastructure upgrades as some sort of subsidy to barley exporters when the bulk of that barley comes out of Western Australia and South Australia and is firmly dry land for farming. The Murray-Darling Basin is nowhere near Geraldton or other parts of the barley growing world. And I think it demonstrates the absence of factual analysis in the decision that’s been made by China. We will continue to mount the case, and we hope that through whatever appeal mechanisms we’ve determined to use, that we find a hearing that takes greater account of the facts of the argument…

Question: And will that be the way you lead your case with the WTO?

Simon Birmingham: Well we reserve our rights in relation to the WTO. There may be other parts that we choose to pursue first, and so we’re going to, as I say, take the time over the next couple of days to talk to the farming sector and Australian industry and make sure that what we do aligns with what they want, and we do put Australia’s interest first.

Question: …could you dispose of this issue in the five-year time period- before the five-year time period?

Simon Birmingham: It’s entirely within China’s rights to withdraw these duties, just as they’ve impose these duties. I hope that they will see common sense and withdraw the duties as quickly as possible, and we’re going to use whatever avenues are available to us, and I would firmly hope that – although it may take some time –we will see resolution in the appeals well within five years and that we can get these duties lifted in that timeframe.

Question: Will you introduce your own tariff on any Chinese exports?

Simon Birmingham: Australia is not interested in a trade war. We don’t conduct our trade policy on a tit for tat basis. We operate according to the trade rules that we strongly support as a country, and we’ll continue to do that. We acknowledge that China has a right to use anti-dumping laws and rules. We use those laws and rules at times as well. But it is a case where China we think, in this case, has made errors of both fact and rule in the application of those rules.

Question: Just how crippling- just reiterating, just how crippling is this import tax going to be on the market?

Simon Birmingham: This is a real blow for our barley farmers and producers. It is a significant market to China. And it isn’t just bad news for Australian farmers. It’ll be Chinese breweries and Chinese consumers who end up paying more, getting substandard products from other countries in the future as a result of this. But our farmers have shown great ability to adapt over the years. And no doubt this threat, it has hung over the industry for a period of time. Will have influence some planting decisions this year. It also, though, means that we will make extra effort in terms of in the Middle East and in Indonesia and elsewhere to open up new markets for our farmers.

Question: On a local issue, do you still hold firm that the state borders should be lifted for the purposes of business liquidity?

Simon Birmingham: The Queensland Premier yesterday suggested that borders could be shut all the way through to September. If we continue to see the national success in containing COVID-19, as things like restaurants and pubs reopen and we get things gradually back to normal with appropriate social distancing, then there’s no reason if all of those next steps are successful that we can’t see borders reopen well before September.

Question: You’re not guided by the fact that there’s still new cases cropping up in the state?

Simon Birmingham: This is about making sure we manage the health situation appropriately, and Australia has done a phenomenal job right across the country. When border restrictions were imposed along with a range of other restrictions, the country was recording significant daily new cases. We now see very few daily new cases and if we can, as a country, maintain those very small numbers as we get things back to normal, the borders ought to be able to open up as well once we’ve given it time to check that we do have everything still under control.

Question: You’re not having any chats with Steve Marshall about this issue?

Simon Birmingham: No, I don’t think there is much difference there. I firmly respect the fact that states have got to go through right now, the process of reopening. Pubs and restaurants and getting all of those things back to normal and making sure that we still haven’t seen an uptick in cases once that’s happened. But if in a few weeks or a couple of months’ time, we’ve successfully implemented those next stages and phases of reopening and there’s been no uptick in cases, then reopening borders is the logical next step to take.

Question: Minister, just on the free childcare scheme, that could possibly end up- finish up on June 28. Is it going to be tricky trying to wind back a successful childcare scheme when people are still out of work?

Simon Birmingham: Well the childcare scheme was put in place and recognising that we had broad shut downs of activity at that time. We’re trying to make sure we get people back to work and businesses open again. The Government will still have JobKeeper in place which supports childcare operators. We will- if we step back to a normal regime with the childcare system, that means the childcare subsidy kicks back in providing enormous support to families. And that childcare subsidy is tailored so that those who earn the least, receive the greatest degree of subsidy in relation to any child care needs they have. Thanks guys.