Topics: Australia-China trade relationship; Australian ship stranded in Chinese waters; interstate borders;
Tom Elliott: Look, this trade tension between China and Australia really is concerning. I mean, we need to export, particularly agricultural produce, because we produce a lot more agricultural goods than what we can possibly consume here. China is our biggest trade partner. We have a free trade agreement with China, which means that basically, they can buy what they want from us and we can buy what we want from them, and neither side is supposed to block the trade of the other country. And yet in recent months, China has blocked exports from us of all sorts of goods, from barley, to wine, to crayfish, and most recently Victorian timber exports. Now, yesterday I spoke with Michael O’Connor, National Secretary of the Manufacturing Division of the CFMMEU, and they represent forestry workers. And you know, the Chinese said that there’s thing called the bark beetle, which means that they’ve got to stop all these exports of Australian timber. Michael O’Connor thought that was absolute rubbish, and he said that our next guest had to get out from under the doona and go and talk to the Chinese Government. Our next guest is the Federal Minster for Trade Tourism and Investment. Minister Simon Birmingham, good afternoon.
Simon Birmingham: G’day, Tom. It’s good to be with you.
Tom Elliott: Well, thank you for joining us. I do appreciate it. We heard a lot of calls, a lot of discussion about this issue. So, what is going wrong? Why over the last month or so has China just blocking all sorts of different exports from Australia?
Simon Birmingham: We’re certainly seeing, Tom, really right throughout the course of this year, and even in some ways dating back over a couple of years, a mass step-up in terms of regulatory actions and interventions from China that are disrupting trade and heightening uncertainty and risk for many Australian businesses. And these are matters of grave concern to us as a Government, but more particularly of course to many exporters and communities across the country who do rely on trade with China and they’re exactly why China is choosing to undertake some of these actions. A question for China, they usually point to, as you said in the intro there, to specific issues such as the live bark beetles as they claimed to have been found in certain shipments of timber. But there is a pattern and the cumulative effects of actions there is deeply troubling.
Tom Elliott: So are we being punished, we being Australia, because we blamed China for the original outbreak of COVID-19. I mean, is that what’s really going on here?
Simon Birmingham: Tom, I don’t think it goes specifically to that singular issue. And it is really a question for China as to what their motivations are. We have, as a Government, always sought to protect Australia’s interests and values. And we will never shy away from that in terms of ensuring that our security, our infrastructure, our democratic systems, our communications systems, that all of those different things are protected as they should be, and that we respond to different threats as they emerge. But in doing that, we’re only doing what any sovereign nation and government should do. And the Morrison Government, and prior to that, the Turnbull Government was very strong in all of those areas. Now, we need to equally make sure that in saying to countries: we’ve just done as you would do, we also expect to be able to continue to maintain other mutually beneficial arrangements and the type of protections that put in place certainly should not impede the ongoing trade or economic relationships that we’ve all developed.
Tom Elliott: Okay. I mean, that’s a very nice, sort of diplomatic way of describing what’s going on. But what are you actually doing? I mean, have you rung up, I don’t know, the Trade Minister in China and said: hey, what’s going on?
Simon Birmingham: It’s well publicised, Tom, that I have, throughout the course of this year, sought to have discussions with the Chinese Trade Minister. And regrettably, they’re unwilling to agree to engage in those.
Tom Elliott: So what do they say? He’s busy, or he can’t come to the phone right now, or call again next week, or what?
Simon Birmingham: Probably a combination of those things or just not responding. And so we continue to lobby at diplomatic levels through our ambassador in Beijing in terms of working through various different agencies of government. But the door, from our perspective, is open. We are a mature government. We will sit down and talk to partners across the world with whom we might have disagreements from time to time to seek to resolve issues. And we would only but wish that they would reciprocate, being willing to come to the table and actually talk about these issues.
Tom Elliott: Well, let’s just say they don’t. I mean, we’ve got a free trade agreement. That’s a legal agreement signed with China a while ago. Can we them to some sort of international court?
Simon Birmingham: There are certain actions that China has taken that we are potentially looking at taking to the World Trade Organization, particularly in relation to our barley industry, which was in early action this year, where they’ve imposed significant duties and tariffs on Australian barley going into China on the grounds, spurious grounds we believe, the product being dumped and subsidised for entry into the Chinese market. Everybody knows that Australian farmers aren’t heavily subsidised or subsidised in any meaningful way by government. They don’t go around dumping premium grain on global markets. And so, we have recently exhausted all of the internal appeal processes in China in relation to that matter, and we’re now going through a period of consultation with the Australian grains industry to potentially formulate an appeal to the WTO.
Tom Elliott: Now, the head of the De Bortoli Wines, Darren De Bortoli, has accused you and your government, the Federal Government, of overreacting when it came to COVID-19 at the start of the year. Is that fair for him to say that?
Simon Birmingham: No. I think all Australians would expect that the least that could happen to help the world better manage a future pandemic is an inquiry and investigation to understand how this came about, how it was managed in the early stages, and how we can better respond or better prevent such things from occurring in the future. But I also think it is grossly simplistic for anybody to think that that is a sole factor in relation to any of this issue.
Tom Elliott: Now, just a couple other issues. There’s a ship which has thousands of tonnes of Australian coal on board, which appears to be sort of stranded off in Chinese waters. Apparently, it’s got a whole lot of sailors from India and they’re stuck on this ship and have been stuck since midway through June. What’s happening there? Are they rejecting our coal shipments as well now?
Simon Birmingham: It’s an interesting one, Tom, because much of what happens in the coal trade, and it does happen with other products as well, is that often it is paid for the point that it leaves the Australian port. So, in that sense, this is a product that’s been contracted and purchased but not unloaded in the port of destination. So, it is a concern regardless, even if it’s being paid for in advance, that we do have this ship with Italian sailors who have been stuck there for a long period of time. I know that it’s been raised by the Italian government…
Tom Elliott: Sorry, are they Italian? Are they Italian or Indian? I thought they were Indian.
Simon Birmingham: Sorry. Indian, I think, in this case. But it is possible that there may be other ships. We do see in terms of the coal trade into China that it goes through real peaks and troughs. It is a trade where they have a domestic industry that seems to be afforded a degree of protection from time to time. So, it’s not just something that impacts Australia, but we have expressed real concern here. This is not just about trade. As you rightly say, it’s about a group of sailors who find themselves now stuck in a prolonged situation. And we’ve urged China to talk to and deal with the shipping company to get it resolved and to deal with the companies involved in terms of purchasers and seller to resolve it.
Tom Elliott: But my concern is, just in general- I mean, I’ve listened to everything you said and you’re saying all the right things, but I mean, we can’t just, every time someone ships something to China, just have it stopped and the Chinese say: oh, look, it’s got a bug in it or something. I mean, surely, we can do something, government to government, to sort this issue out. I mean, it’s as though China is punishing us, but we’re not quite sure why we’re being punished.
Simon Birmingham: Tom, we are reaching out at every level, but these are decisions of the Chinese Government, not decisions of the Australian Government. As I’ve said in this interview and many others, we’re happy to sit and talk. We make it very clear, through our representations to China and publicly, that we wanted a mutually beneficial relationship, that we respect China. We have welcomed and participated in their growth and prosperity, and we want to see that continue in the future, because it’s been good for them and the whole region in which we live. We’re happy to have the dialogue, have the discussion and have been very clear in our position as a respectful position. And we would welcome nothing more than for that to be reciprocated.
Tom Elliott: Okay. Well, speaking of the area in which we live, I mean, I saw the Prime Minister’s press conference today, and he celebrated the fact that by Christmas, all of Australia’s borders should be reopened except for Western Australia. Why does WA get a leave pass here? Why are they allowed to keep their border closed? Everybody else is opening up.
Simon Birmingham: Well, everybody else is being cooperative. It’s probably the simplest way to put that. And the West Australian Government has not been, and that means that for many people in WA who want to be reunited with family, and loved ones, friends over the Christmas period, they’re going to be denied that opportunity. I think that’s very sad for them if they don’t move and move quicker. And I do welcome the fact that the McGowan Government has made some steps. It’s now opened up to South Australia, for example, despite the fact that it’s been quite a long time, months in fact, that South Australia has been open to WA, but not in reverse, even though neither of those jurisdictions – and jurisdictions with a large border that they share – neither has had COVID uncontrolled in their…
Tom Elliott: Yeah. Well, we know how that feels. We’re about the only state that kept its borders open and the problem is everybody else closed their borders to us. Look, we’ll leave it there. I really appreciate your time. Simon Birmingham is the Federal Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.