• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Australia trade relations with China; COVID-19 Inquiry; Live from Aus.
14 May 2020

Question: Minister, thank you very much for your time. Obviously, a very busy time. How would you currently describe your relationship with China at the moment? In a nutshell, in 20 words or less, how would you describe this wonderful relationship you have with our largest trading partner?

Simon Birmingham: Australia continues to enjoy record trading relations with many partners around the world, including with China. At a government to government level, there are some well-known areas of disagreement, but our determination is to work as cooperatively as we can with China as a partner while also continuing to facilitate, wherever possible, the people to people engagement, the business to business engagement, that has underpinned these record trade ties.

Question: Have you had a phone call yet from your Chinese counterpart?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I’ve not spoken with my Chinese counterpart this week. I would hope that we can have discussions there. The Australian Government is always willing to engage in thoughtful dialogue with our partners around the world, even on issues that we might disagree upon.

Question: I think you’ve rejected this before, but I’ll get you to say it on the record for us. But why can’t these two very curiously timed and maybe not so curiously forewarned given the comments from the ambassador recently. Why can’t this be considered the start of a trade war?

Simon Birmingham: The Australian Government is going to put the interests of our farmers and exporters first in responding to these issues in the manner in which China has presented them to us, and that is as administrative issues that have been stretching back over 12 to 18 months. And it’s in the best interests of our farmers and exporters that we respond to the detail of the claims made through the appropriate processes and put the strongest possible case for our farmers and exporters.

Question: Why shouldn’t we take umbrage at it given that- at the Prime Minister, I think, said earlier today at a press conference we should be standing up for our values? I mean, it was pretty innocuous asking for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, wasn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Australia does stand up for our values and we don’t respond to any suggestions of economic coercion. We won’t deviate from our policy positions. It is absolutely the right thing to seek an inquiry into the causes and handling of COVID-19 because hundreds of thousands of people have died, millions of people have lost their jobs, billions of people have had their lives disrupted, and the least the world should expect is that we can learn the lessons from COVID-19 to hopefully avoid a repeat and certainly be better prepared to handle in the future, And that’s why we look forward to working with partners in support of the European Union resolution to the World Health Assembly next week and we hope that that will enjoy widespread support and cooperation from right around the world, including from China.

Question: Analysts we’ve spoken to for 7:30 have said things like, that this is- this Chinese tactic is just trying to drive a wedge to between the government and the business community. Certainly, you’ve got backbenchers from both sides saying things about Chinese communist threats. You’ve got the Government of Queensland saying they’re concerned about a potential trade war. What’s your thinking on that? What’s your response to the people who believe that we’re not doing enough to stand up to China? And what’s- how are you handling it, I guess is the easiest way of putting it?

Simon Birmingham: Our government consistently has been strong in the defence of Australian values, firm in the policy positions we’ve taken to protect those values, but always sought to be respectful in the way in which we engage with partners even where there might be disagreements over those policy positions, and that’s the way in which we will continue to conduct ourselves. We’ll always stand up for our values. We’ll always implement policies that protect those values. But ultimately, we want to make sure that with every trading partner, with every regional partner, with every global partner, we do have the most constructive and engaging relationship as possible and that we are always open to dialogue over the areas where we can agree and cooperate and indeed, over the issues upon which we might have disagreements.

Question: So what about the potential for further industries to be affected? I mean, the Chinese Ambassador was pretty blunt; wine, beef. Well, now you’ve seen beef targeted. What about students and tourism? I mean, what else is on your concern hit list?

Simon Birmingham: The comments of Ambassador Cheng were unhelpful, and they certainly did imply that there could be an attempted economic coercion. Now the Chinese authorities have subsequently been clear that the issues that have been raised around barley and beef are longstanding, 12 to 18 month long administrative processes, and we’re responding to the detail of those. And we want to make sure that the engagement between the Australian people and the Chinese people, Australian businesses and Chinese businesses is able to continue as strongly as it possibly can, because it’s in the best interests of both countries, both in an economic sense – which is an important relationship in two way terms – but also in terms of the understanding that each country has for one another that is often fuelled and enhanced by those exchanges.

Question: Is Australia worried- is the Australian Government worried at all that we’re going to get caught between these two superpowers in a new Cold War?

Simon Birmingham: Australia is determined that we will always act in accordance with our values, and defend and implement policy that’s in accordance with our values. We’ve stand true to that, but we also do so as a country committed to engagement with all our allies, all our partners, and working through appropriate multilateral institutions to encourage everyone to play by the rules, and whether they’re the rules of trade or whether they are setting effective rules through help instruments and organisations to protect the world in the future.

Question: Okay. Final question, the FBI and the Homeland Security in the US said overnight that [indistinct] directly involved in creating coronavirus vaccine should be more worried about Chinese hackers. I mean, to get a coronavirus vaccine would be a major propaganda coup for either China or the US. What are we telling our people in Australia? Have we got similar concerns about hackers from China?

Simon Birmingham: Our researchers in Australia are cooperating with researchers from around the world to try to get that breakthrough of a COVID-19 vaccine, and we’ve committed as government to work cooperatively right around the world on the development of a vaccine, and if one is achieved, around its manufacture and sharing of it. And it’s important that we get that breakthrough for the good of the entire world.

Question: But do you share the concerns of the FBI and the US Homeland Security Department?

Simon Birmingham: Our ambition is to see a vaccine develop as quickly as possible that can enable the world to thoroughly open up again and return to work. And our commitment is to cooperate with anybody and everybody in terms of getting that breakthrough.

Question: Alright. Minister, thanks. Appreciate it, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: No worries. Thanks, Michael. Cheers.

Unidentified Speaker: What else is going on in your portfolio? Things are starting to sort of bubble up again not related to coronavirus, finally. I feel like we’re starting to talk about other issues.

Simon Birmingham: We are. I can entertain you all weekend, along this weekend. We’ve got Tourism Australia launching Live from Aus. You can sort of switch broadcasters tomorrow night and get an hour’s worth of Australia Live on Channel 10. And then right through the weekend, Tourism Australia live streaming a whole bunch of different activities, from yoga sessions on Byron Bay, to watching the sunset at Uluru, to wine tasting at McLaren Vale in SA. And actually, kind of it’s- it’s about really facilitating the dreaming and the planning, and people in some states, you can now in SA, get out to a region. Not quite allowed to do the wine tasting yet, but that’s pretty close.