Topics: Australia-China relationship; Cruising; New tourism campaign targeting New Zealanders.
Ben Fordham: Well, another day, another threat of Chinese sanctions. Cotton and wheat farmers have been warned they are next. Our wheat trade with China is worth about $500 million; cotton even more – $600 million annually. This latest warning comes a day after China extended sanctions on timber and slapped new ones on lamb. Simon Birmingham, the Federal Trade and Tourism Minister’s on the line this morning. Minister, good morning to you.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Ben. Thanks for the opportunity.
Ben Fordham: Thank you for talking to us. Are we starting to get the hint here? China doesn’t want anything to do with us anymore?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve seen a pattern of behavior right through this year and it is that cumulative effect that has generated such concern in the Australian Government. It is why we have called out this cumulative pattern of behavior, publicly, through the World Trade Organization, looking to pursue every possible remedy while reinforcing to China that of course, Australia is willing to talk. We haven’t changed in our approaches or our perspective. Of course, we’ll always stay true to our values and our principles. But we remain committed to being an open trading nation and to honouring the types of commitments that we make to the rest of the world.
Ben Fordham: Chinese-Australians who I’ve spoken to say, forget about it. There is no remedy. The horse has bolted.
Simon Birmingham: Well I think there will need to be patience in terms of getting China to understand that Australia won’t respond in ways that see us change our policy positions or adjust our values or compromise on areas like foreign investment or national security. All of our settings in those sorts of policy areas are country agnostic, they don’t target any one country. But what they do do is ensure that we protect Australia’s sovereign national interests, as people would expect us to do. That’s the same as any country does, including what China does. It shouldn’t disrupt the ability of our peoples, of our businesses to get on with one another.
Ben Fordham: Minister, can I get a direct response to a motion that Pauline Hanson will be moving today, calling to put Chinese investment on hold. She says, Australia’s kept its promises under the free trade agreement; China has not. How will you vote on that?
Simon Birmingham: Well Ben, I haven’t quite looked at all of the words on the motion, but I would expect that I will vote against it because what we do, is we consider every instance of foreign investment, regardless of the country, as to whether it is in Australia’s national interest. And so, our consistent approach is very much one of ensuring that every bit of foreign investment goes through. Right now, it checks and balances that under the Foreign Investment Review regime, we have then thresholds that are set to ensure that over the long term, those that trigger certain thresholds must go through those cycles. It is worth remembering that China, yes, it is a valuable partner in a range of ways but they are far from our largest foreign investor. And the United States is our largest, and the United Kingdom, Japan, the Netherlands, all sit above China in terms of the scale of foreign investment into Australia.
Ben Fordham: We’re talking to the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham who’s also the Minister for Tourism. Cruising is banned in Australia until at least March 2021, Minister. And we learnt today, there’s been a positive coronavirus case on a cruise ship in Singapore. Is this further evidence that we have to hold for now?
Simon Birmingham: We’ve taken a very cautious approach when it comes to cruise ships. Australians all too well, vividly recall the problems seen on cruise ships off our shores and off the shores elsewhere around the world. And so our government’s not going to take any risks with the health safety of Australians, because the success in terms of suppressing COVID, has also played directly into the economic security of Australians. The two are very interlinked. The reason that our economy is performing far better than many others around the world, while we’ve been able to reopen and get Australians back to work, have them with the confidence to move about freely and safely, is because we’ve suppressed COVID and we don’t wish to risk that.
Ben Fordham: You’re launching a campaign today to encourage young Kiwis to come here for a holiday.
Simon Birmingham: That’s right. So, look, Australia is suffering from the absence of many of the usual working holiday makers. There’d usually, at this time of year, be about 135,000 working holiday makers here. But right now that’s down to 52,000 as a result of just those who’ve been able to stay essentially since the pandemic commenced. So having opened up to New Zealand, with nearly all states allowing Kiwis to enter quarantine free because they’ve done so well in suppressing COVID as well. We want to encourage those Kiwis to come across, have their working holiday here, enjoy good times across Australia. And in doing so, they can also fill, as working holiday makers do, some of the skills gaps in our agricultural and tourism sectors.
Ben Fordham: I know you’re finishing up as a Trade Minister at the end of the year and moving to take up the finance portfolio. We really appreciate all the conversations we’ve had in 2020. We’ll talk to you as finance minister in 2021. Merry Christmas to you.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Ben. Look forward to it. Merry Christmas to you and to all of your listeners. May it be a much better 2021 for everybody.
Ben Fordham: Bloody oath. Good on you. Simon Birmingham, the Federal Trade and Tourism Minister who’s moving into the finance portfolio.