• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Chinese Ambassador’s remarks, investigation into the causes and management of COVID-19
28 April 2020

Tom Elliott: Our next guest is the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Senator Simon Birmingham. Good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Tom, good to be with you.

Tom Elliott: Well good to be with you too. Now, this threat by the Chinese Ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, do you take it seriously?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’re very disappointed by it and we have reached displeasure with the Ambassador. In no way is the Australian Government going to change our public policy positions on matters of public health or national security or other matters in Australia’s national interest, in response to any intimation of economic coercion or the like from other countries or governments. I think if we look at the substance of the issue around the impacts of COVID-19, we’ve seen something where hundreds of thousands of lives around the world are being lost, people are dying; where probably hundreds of millions of jobs are being lost, and where billions of people have had their lives disrupted. And the least that the world should expect is that there be some sort of independent, transparent investigation to make sure that we can do the best things possible to prevent a repeat of this in the future, to learn from how it’s been handled, and to make sure that we’re all better prepared should something like this come along again.

Tom Elliott: Well sure, that’s what we should want. But the problem is if China decides to stop trading with us, that’s going to be quite bad for Australia, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that sort of investigation is what all countries of the world should want, including China, to minimise the threat to life of their citizens and the disruption to their economy and to their people that this has caused to them as well as many other countries around the place. Look, Australia wants to maintain positive relations with China as a valued partner, including as a significant trading partner. Look, [indistinct] need to work hard to do that but we’re not going to compromise on matters of public health or national security to do so. We will make sure that we take a firm and principled position to everything. Our dispute certainly isn’t with the Chinese people or the businesses of China. It is clearly a degree of policy difference with the Government of China but we hope that they can see the merit in having this type of scrutiny that can ensure, not just they, but every other country in the region and across the world is better able to prevent such an outbreak in the future, and better able to respond to it if one occurs.

Tom Elliott: But okay, you say you hope they can see the merit in it, it’s quite clear that China’s Ambassador, Cheng Jingye, does not see the merit in that. He’s said no, we’re not going to have an international investigation, leave that to us and if you threaten us again we’ll stop trading with you. Again, what is the likelihood of this happening? Because as it is the Australian economy is on its knees. I know you won’t like me saying that but that’s the truth, while we’re in lockdown. I mean, we really can’t afford China to stop trading with us can we?

Simon Birmingham: Well, certainly we have a relationship with China which is beneficial to both countries. Our resources and energy has helped to sustain and fuel much of China’s activity, manufacturing activity,

construction activity and economic growth and China will continue to need those sorts of resources, energy, in the future to be able to do so. Our premium high quality and safe food provides quality to Chinese consumers in a growing middle class that they want and demand. And we as a country, yes, want to be able to export those things because we have and produce them many times the number of our own population over so it makes economic sense for us to be able to export to the world. And that’s why we’re going to continue to do our best not to seek to escalate or elevate difficulties with China but nor are we going to trade away our principle decisions in relation to good public health policy and practice.

Tom Elliott: Okay. So a final question, will this independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus and the early handling of it, will the inquiry go ahead?

Simon Birmingham: We hope so, and this is a discussion that will be had through the World Health Assembly as I understand it. And of course, we’ve also made clear that we think the World Health Organization should have its powers strengthened, its independence strengthened, so that it can better handle these sorts of circumstances in the future. Whether they start in Australia or in South East Asia, or in China or in South America, or anywhere else in the world.

Tom Elliott: Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, thank you for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Tom, my pleasure.