Interview on ABC Insiders with Patricia Karvelas
Topics: MP Andrew Hastie’s comments on China, the US-China trade dispute, Australia diversifying trade, the CPAC conference.
Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham, welcome to Insiders.
Simon Birmingham: G’day Patricia, good to be with you.
Patricia Karvelas: Was Andrew Hastie’s warning on the rise of China helpful?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I would certainly encourage any colleague, or indeed anybody, making comments around sensitive foreign policy matters to pose a couple of questions before they do so to themselves: Is the making of those comments in a public way necessary, and is it helpful to Australia’s national interest? Now, our national interest is best-served by ensuring that we seek to engage China in a constructive way to make sure they are a responsible citizen in our region and globally, that they respect the sovereignty of other countries, that they respect intellectual property, but also that we continue to try to ensure their growth and the economic growth of our region, because that has helped to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty. Just as, in our engagement with the United States, we want to ensure they are engaged in our region as a force for stability, and that they also engage in ways that respect the institutions that have helped to underpin global economic growth and stability in the period since World War II.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay. But he’s not just any MP, he’s not just any backbencher, he’s not just any colleague. He chairs this powerful intelligence committee. In fact, your colleague Peter Dutton says he gets briefings, he knows. So a warning from him comes with meaning, doesn’t it?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, that doesn’t change the point that I made. Are the making of comments publicly necessary? Are they helpful to our national interest? Now, if the making of comments is designed to drive a focus in terms of areas of Government policy, well, of course Government policy in terms of our national security and defence ought to be prepared for any and all eventualities and circumstances. Now that’s what our Government has done over the period of the last six years that we’ve been in office. We’ve grown the rate of investment in our Defence Forces, lifted it to 2 per cent of GDP. We’re investing significantly in defence infrastructure across air, sea, land and cyber in our defence capability…
Patricia Karvelas: Okay, but Home…
Simon Birmingham: …and we’ve strengthened our national security legislation, particularly in relation to foreign interference laws and the like. So the actions and the settings of the Government in a number of these areas are already there.
Patricia Karvelas: Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton says: There’s no point pretending there’s nothing to see on China. Is that what the Government’s doing?
Simon Birmingham: No, and our dialogue with China has and is always open and honest. As two countries, we don’t always agree…
Patricia Karvelas: So is Peter Dutton wrong then?
Simon Birmingham: No. Peter, I think, is acknowledging the obvious there, which is what we have done, will do and will continue to do into the future. Our undertakings with China are that we engage directly with them in a thoughtful manner. Where we have points of difference in relation to human rights issues or in relation to national security issues, we have taken those up with China. We continue to do so in a range of different for a. But we also engage constructively with China to advance their growth, and their growth has been one of the economic miracles of our lifetimes. It has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It’s created a new economic dynamic in our region that has benefited not only people in China but people in other less-developed countries across our region, and of course has assisted our economy as well. What we need to do is keep working to ensure China’s global engagement is responsible and according to the type of norms that a country like Australia would urge any other country to engage by.
Patricia Karvelas: So Minister, why is your Cabinet at odds on such a key relationship for Australia?
Simon Birmingham: I don’t accept the premise of that question, Patricia.
Patricia Karvelas: Well, Peter Dutton defended Andrew Hastie – hang on a minute – and then others including Mathias Cormann have denounced the comments. You are at odds.
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, when it comes to Australia’s relationship with China, our Government is very clear and consistent in that relationship. The leadership of our Government works hard to ensure that we have a constructive relationship with China that acknowledges and honestly, but politely, deals with our differences, whilst ensuring we continue to collaborate in the areas where we agree and where there is mutual benefit for such collaboration, especially in terms of those areas of economic growth. And what we see is that our trading relationship is as strong as it’s ever been, the trade figures are as strong as they’ve ever been, and we want to continue to work hard to build that relationship as a pillar that can also influence other aspects of the relationship and help to drive that type of responsible regional engagement that we want from all parties in the region.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay. So, Labor’s Richard Marles said this morning that there must be a detailed discussion between the Opposition and the Government on China. Will you work to settle a bipartisan strategy on China?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we certainly engage with briefings of the Opposition when required. The Joint Intelligence Committee that you discussed before is a bipartisan committee that has Government and Labor MPs there receiving the same briefings and the same information at the same time, and we’ll of course work with the Opposition where it’s appropriate to do so. We do all of that in the context…
Patricia Karvelas: But the Opposition is concerned that the Government doesn’t have a consistent position now on China.
Simon Birmingham: Well I’ve just rejected that point, Patricia. The Government’s position is very clear, and that is that we seek to have as constructive as possible a relationship with every country in our region. And when it comes to China, which is one of the great powers of the region, and Prime Minister Morrison gave a clear speech ahead of the G20 summit earlier this year, or last month, in which he outlined that the US and China, as great powers now economically and strategically, have great responsibilities. And he was clear in how he urged them to exercise those great responsibilities to respect the sovereignty of other nations, to respect the role of international institutions in terms of providing peace, stability and a framework for economic growth and progress.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay. So given you’ve rebuked Andrew Hastie’s intervention publicly, should he stay as head of that powerful intelligence committee?
Simon Birmingham: Andrew Hastie has served our country with distinction. He brings particular skills and expertise to his role on that committee. As I said, my comments relate to any colleague in the future thinking about sensitive foreign policy issues. They ought to pose those couple of questions: Is it necessary to make those comments publicly? And is it helpful to our national interest? There are a range of ways in which any of us can contribute, and we can do that through direct discussion with Ministers, with leadership, in partyroom, in backbench committees and other ways.
Patricia Karvelas: All right. Let’s talk about how it affects you in your key role. Do these remarks make it harder for you to do your job as Trade Minister?
Simon Birmingham: Well, my job as Trade Minister is to keep expanding the opportunities for Australia’s farmers and businesses. Now, we already have trade agreements in place with countries like China and the United States, Japan and Korea. What we’re looking to do is to legislate now the agreement we struck just before the election with a major emerging economy like Indonesia, to seize new market access opportunities into places like the European Union, India, the UK, to really build the opportunities for Australian businesses and farmers to have more diverse access to more markets so that they can seize the opportunities that will come as our economy and the global economy continues to evolve and change.
Patricia Karvelas: So Minister, is your message that you’re trying to diversify that trade? You don’t want to be so reliant on China?
Simon Birmingham: This was already our policy setting, we’re not trying to do anything new…
Patricia Karvelas: But is that at the centre of your concern?
Simon Birmingham: …and it has been our policy setting to create the maximum access for Australia’s farmers and businesses so that they choose, they respond to the economic opportunities that are there. The Australian Government doesn’t strike sales that sell Australian goods or services into markets. We don’t choose who Australia’s farmers or which Australian businesses sell into which other countries, Australian farmers and businesses do that. But they do that facilitated by the type of agreements that we can negotiate. And what our Government has achieved over the last six years is to dramatically increase the choices available to Australian farmers and businesses. Those farmers and businesses used to only have preferential access to 20 per cent or so of markets, they now have that to 70 per cent of markets, and we aspire to grow that to around 90 per cent of global markets, giving them the maximum choice to sell where it suits them best.
Patricia Karvelas: So Minister, how much effort is Australia putting in to asking the Americans and the Chinese to resolve this trade dispute, and do you think it can be resolved by Christmas?
Simon Birmingham: We don’t miss any opportunity to urge those two giants in global economy to engage in dialogue, to engage in discussion and not to increase the type of protectionist trade sanctions that are hurting the global economy. What we’ve seen is the rate of growth in global trade has slowed to the lowest level since the global financial crisis. That’s had a negative impact in terms of global economic growth, driving it down according to the IMF, and that’s bad news for everybody. It’s bad news for the United States, for China, for Australia and for all other nations to see those negative implications, and that’s why our position has long been…
Patricia Karvelas: So let me take you to the question: can it be resolved by Christmas?
Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s a matter between those two countries. Australia can’t resolve a trade dispute between China and the United States…
Patricia Karvelas: Certainly not.
Simon Birmingham: …but we are consistent in our public advocacy urging them to engage in dialogue to resolve it.
Patricia Karvelas: Are you confident it will happen by Christmas?
Simon Birmingham: I wouldn’t seek to make predictions. I’ve seen enough twists and turns in this already, and we live in very uncertain times. That’s why the steps we take, not only in increasing trade access to the rest of the world but also in strengthening the Australian economy in other ways, such as the tax relief we’ve legislated since the election, is essential to make sure Australia is as robust and resilient as we can be with these very great global uncertainties.
Patricia Karvelas: Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister, says Australia could face a recession if it continues. Are you worried about that too?
Simon Birmingham: Well look, I don’t think we should talk ourselves down. Our economy has shown great resilience through a period of 28 years of continuous economic growth now, and I believe we will continue to show resilience. Our Government has worked hard to bring the Budget back to the point of balance, to be able to ensure we have record numbers of Australians in employment, to drive down the number of Australians as a proportion of the workforce on welfare, to make sure that we keep creating new opportunities that enable us to pass tax cuts and deliver tax relief to hard-working Australian families and to ease their cost of living pressures. They’re the types of things that can keep our economy sound through very rocky global times.
Patricia Karvelas: Briefly, Minister, ‘cause I’m out of time: Just on Iran, Labor says they haven’t been briefed on this deployment, potentially, which we’re considering. Why hasn’t the Government brought them in?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I’ll leave that as a matter for the Defence Minister to address in terms of what the appropriate time is to discuss with the Opposition and the deliberation inside Government of sensitive issues like that.
Patricia Karvelas: All right. And just on this CPAC conservative conference, are we seeing a more aggressive position taken by conservatives after the election of your Government?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I don’t know whether that’s the case. I’m not convinced of it. But I would say to anybody it would be a misreading of the election results and a mistake to believe that the election was anything other than fought clearly on economic lines. Ultimately, Australians voted for lower taxes, for more jobs, for a balanced budget, for a strong economy. That is very clearly where the focus of the election campaign was, not on other peripheral issues.
Patricia Karvelas: Do you think colleagues like Amanda Stoker appearing at CPAC was helpful for the Australian Government?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I defend anybody’s right to be able to speak freely at public events, but as I say I think the focus for our Government is on maintaining the strength of our economy. That’s the message we took to the election and that’s certainly where our policy focus lies for the future.
Patricia Karvelas: So you’re saying there shouldn’t be, sort of, a frolic into these areas by your colleagues, they should focus on the economy?
Simon Birmingham: We have many members of Parliament who have many interests and they ought to be free to pursue their interests, mindful, as always, as I said right at the outset, of the national interest and the necessity to do so publicly. But in many areas, of course, backbenchers make fabulous contributions helping to advance public policy causes. You just framed the question, initially, about the drift or the thinking since the election. Well, my view is the election clearly was a mandate for the Government particularly in the area of our economic policies and nobody should forget that.
Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us on Insiders.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you.