Topics: Chinese Foreign Minister visit to Australia; Religious discrimination legislation; 

07:25AM AEDT
20 March 2024


Simon Birmingham: I look forward to meeting later today with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and welcome him to Australia. The period during which China refused to have, and ceased to have ministerial level dialogue with Australia was counterproductive for everybody’s interests, and the fact that these discussions can now take place is welcome.

The ties between the Chinese people and the Australian people, between Chinese businesses and Australian businesses, are deep ties, and we want to ensure those ties and the high regard that our peoples and our businesses have for one another are enhanced wherever possible. Obviously, there are significant points of difference between our governments and concerns about how we ensure the peace and stability of our region, how we ensure that agreements made between our countries, particularly the free trade agreement, are upheld in both letter and spirit by both countries. How we ensure that the rule of law is applied in fair ways, and the deep, deep concerns that Australians have for Australian citizen Yang Hengjun and are concerned for his welfare and that he be treated with compassion and ultimately be released. Our desire to ensure that we see respect for human rights and the deeply troubling laws that we’ve seen passed through Hong Kong in the last 24 hours. These are serious issues that I look forward to raising in discussions with the Chinese Foreign Minister, whilst also looking forward to discussing the areas in which we can progress the relationship to ensure the peace and stability of our region, as well as the continued prosperity of those peoples and businesses who rely upon our relationship.


Journalist: What exactly about Yang Hengjun case would you like to get across in your meeting today, and what do you expect the tone of that to be?


Simon Birmingham: It is critical that Foreign Minister Wang Yi leaves Australia, understanding the depth of Australian concern about the plight of Doctor Yang Hengjun. The depth of feelings from the death sentence that was handed down to him, and the expectation that he be treated with compassion, and the hope that ultimately a pathway for his return to Australia be found.


Journalist: Do you think the fact that Minister Wang Yi is going to be meeting with Paul Keating, kind of casts a bit of a shadow over the motives for his trip to Australia, that it’s not necessarily all about trying to stabilise and normalise the relationship with Canberra?


Simon Birmingham: It was quite pointed of the Chinese embassy to seek the meeting with Paul Keating, and it is somewhat insulting towards Penny Wong and the Albanese Government for that meeting to be taking place. Of course, no such comparable meeting with a critic of government policy could take place in China, were an Australian leader to seek that out during their visit to China. But it’s Australia. We are a free country with a free media and free opportunities for people, including former prime ministers, to express their views. I hope that Mr. Keating shows a higher regard for the national interest in the way that he expresses his views than he has today.


Journalist: Wang Yi visited a winery on his way here last night. Do you think that’s a sign we could see the tariffs finally lifted as early as today?


Simon Birmingham: Tariffs on Australian wine should be lifted. They should be lifted forthwith and they should never have been applied in the first place. We need to be very clear here that China has been acting in breach of its obligations under the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement and to the World Trade Organisation through the imposition of the trade sanctions against Australia. And China’s decisions to lift those tariffs on barley and seemingly now on wine have come following Australia, prosecuting that case through the independent umpire of the WTO and China being handed the draft findings and intended findings of that independent umpire. So, it’s no surprise that under threat of being called out for breaching its commitments to the world, China is removing those tariffs. But it is very welcome that they do so, and they should do so forthwith.


Journalist:  On the issue of religious discrimination, your colleagues have been very critical of the Prime Minister’s stance here, saying that he’s only going to press ahead if there is a level of bipartisanship here. Is this not such an important or fundamental issue that there should be some bipartisanship present in this debate to ensure that it is actually robust and sort of watertight, whatever changes are put forward?


Simon Birmingham: Bipartisanship is a worthy aspiration, but you have to work for it. And the Opposition hasn’t seen the legislation yet. Coalition members haven’t had the chance to consider the detail of it or the implications of it. And nor has there been a transparent process for stakeholders to comment or engage in it. And so, I welcome the aspiration for bipartisanship. But the government has to put in the hard yards to achieve it. Thanks, guys.