SENATOR THE HON SIMON BIRMINGHAM
Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment
Panel discussion on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with David Bevan and Ali Clarke.
Topics: Australia-China relationship; potential loss of Collins class submarine sustainment jobs in SA; Christopher Pyne’s EY role
David Bevan: Let’s welcome Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, South Australian Senator. Good morning to you.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David.
David Bevan: Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance MP for Mayo, good morning to you.
Rebekha Sharkie: Good morning.
David Bevan: And in our studio, Nick Champion, Labor Member for Spence. Good morning to you.
Nick Champion: Good morning.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, you’re the Trade Minister. What’s the latest intelligence you’ve received? There are reports of some sort of military action amassing just outside Hong Kong. Is that your understanding?
Simon Birmingham: Well David, I don’t have a firm update in relation to those matters. Obviously, I’ve seen some of the disturbing footage overnight that seems to see further escalation of the situation in relation to Hong Kong and this is deeply concerning. It’s now been a very drawn out, prolonged cycle of protest action and of course, we have consistently urged Hong Kong authorities to show respect for people’s right to peaceful assembly and their right to protest and for constructive engagement to happen that seeks to address the concerns that Hong Kongese citizens have raised in relation to the decisions of government and the issues that are underlying these protests and demonstrations. And as we see this type of escalation occurring, it is more critical than ever that restraint is shown by authorities and that people try to work towards a peaceful resolution of these matters.
David Bevan: It looks like it’s going to end badly, doesn’t it? For the people of Hong Kong?
Simon Birmingham: Well we sincerely hope that’s not the case. Obviously, we have concerns as we always do for the safety and wellbeing of the individuals, particularly of Australians which is why we upgraded travel advisories a little while ago and clearly this is deeply concerning at human level for many people. And yes, as Trade Minister, it’s also concerning. Hong Kong is a key trade partner of ours. We have a separate trade agreement with Hong Kong that reflects and respects the one country, two systems approach that exists in relation to Hong Kong relative to the People’s Republic of China.
And so we maintain different relations, different trade arrangements there and it is a very significant trade and investment partner in its own right, a very significant tourism partner and all of those things, of course, will be impacted by these types of disruptions.
David Bevan: And there’s absolutely nothing that Australia can do about this, is there? I mean, for instance, it would be – surely it would be pointless to offer or somebody in the international community to offer to be a third party broker to what’s going on there because China – the whole point of this is that China sees Hong Kong as part of its own country, two systems but one country and it says that this is what is at risk here and they are going to exert their authority. They’re not going to be looking for anybody else’s interference in what’s going on.
Simon Birmingham: Well these are domestic issues that are the cause of concern. So they are matters for the Hong Kong authorities to resolve with Hong Kong citizens as part of urging respect for that one country, two systems. There are of course commitments that that were made at the time of handover around the rights that Hong Kongese would have and the way in which the government would interact with them. And we urge all of those commitments to be honoured.
David Bevan: Rebekha Sharkie, what’s Australia been doing?
Rebekha Sharkie: Well I think – I think we’ve just been a bystander and have been watching it as – as Simon says, you know, with deep concern. It must be incredibly a very fearful time for Hong Kong citizens at this point. And what I found, I guess, you know, watching on television as everyone is, is that the peaceful protest but also drawing together many generations in the protest. And you know, even elderly citizens coming out, bravely coming out and – and peacefully protesting. It really is an awful time for Hong Kong.
Ali Clarke: Nick Champion?
Nick Champion: Well I think the people of Hong Kong want what we have which is the right to vote in a stable democracy. I think that’s part of the issue here – they’ve issued some demands, some of which relate to the original settlement of one country, two systems. But they’ve made a further demand about universal suffrage and I think that’s something we’ve got to respect and we’ve just got to urge, I guess, China to show restraint, as Simon says, because the last thing we want is for this to end badly. But I do think we should, where we can, speak up for democracy. I think it’s something people around the world want. It’s not a perfect system but it’s the best of, I guess, a series of choices about how you govern yourself and we think that we should stand up for democratic values.
David Bevan: Yesterday, I spoke to Robert Gottliebsen the man’s a legend, he’s a business commentator been commentating on business in Australia and internationally for decades. I spoke to him yesterday about the relationship between China and Australia. Simon Birmingham, he thinks that the previous Liberal government did a pretty lousy job in its relations with China. This is Gottliebsen yesterday on the morning program.
Robert Gottliebsen: We have handled China very badly by the way. This is not a criticism of the Morrison Government. This is a criticism of Abbott and Turnbull and particularly Turnbull and Julie Bishop. We didn’t handle it well, we kept criticising China, we kept lecturing them and they hated us. They really- they actually respected America more than they respected us.
[End of excerpt]
David Bevan: What do you say to that Simon Birmingham?
Simon Birmingham: Well look, Robert, like anybody, is entitled to his opinion. I don’t accept the premise of everything that he’s saying there, but certainly Scott, as Prime Minister, Marise Payne, as Foreign Minister, and myself in trade and senior leadership of the Government, seek to make sure that we maintain a very clear policy position that that is about operating in Australia’s national interests and we don’t deviate from that and where there are difficult issues to be addressed, we address them.
But equally and where there are honest conversations to be had with China, we have them but we try to make sure we do that as we would with any other country on the planet. We do it in a calm, respectful way noting that we have a very significant partnership with China as well. This is an economic relationship but has grown dramatically over the years.
David Bevan: But can you explain to our listeners, as the Trade Minister, an example of how the tension between our defence relationship and our cultural relationship with the United States intersects and causes tension with our trade relation with China?
Simon Birmingham: Well I was about to say we have more than an economic relationship with China as well as importantly now we have huge exchange of peoples going in both directions which means there’s a range of other cultural and other relationships that are critical to the centrality of the Australia-China relationship.
I’ve seen many hysterical headlines about impact on trade over recent times. The reality is that Australia’s trade relationship with Australia- Australia’s trade relationship with China remains at record levels in terms of the value and the volume of goods that are being transacted.
David Bevan: So why were you so worried about Andrew Hastie?
Simon Birmingham: The only point I made there, and it’s a point that is a generic one, is that everybody needs to make sure that in making comments around sensitive foreign policy matters we consider whether or not they are entirely necessary to be made publicly, and whether it’s in the national interest to do so. Of course we ought to, within government, be honest about all of the challenges we confront and we are, and we have been. And that is why as a Government we have to address a range of global challenges, strengthened our defence investment, strengthened our national security laws, made a range of decisions in relation to foreign interference legislation.
The government that had been very firm in terms of protecting Australia’s national interests and acted in a forward leaning way to do so. But we do that recognizing that threats and challenges come globally from a range of places and equally we should work to guarantee Australia’s security in the future. But make sure we work also to avoid the worst things being realised by maintaining constructive dialogue and engagement with partners wherever we possibly can so that we actually get the best possible outcomes in terms of positive regional engagement, positive relations that can avert the fears that many have being realised down the track.
Ali Clarke: It’s fourteen minutes to nine. That is the voice of Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.
Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance MP for Mayo is with you, as is Nick Champion, Labor Member for Spence who is here in the ABC Radio Adelaide studios.
Simon Birmingham just back you – Hong Kong and China have come to the fore because of another ABC story, and this is the fact that two main candidates for a crucial seat in the recent federal election have been found to have links to China’s Communist Party via their ties to a Hong Kong based organisation. Now one of them is Liberal Party’s Gladys Liu who beat out Labor’s Jennifer Yang. Have you spoken to her, Gladys Liu?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ve spoken to Gladys on a number of occasions.
Ali Clarke: Have you spoken to her about this?
Simon Birmingham: I haven’t spoken to her this morning since this story broke. But I hear from the story and understand that she’s answered in quite a transparent way the questions from the ABC – that she acknowledged that she got involved with this organisation, as did her Labor opponent, because it was seen as a trade and commerce activity just like a local chamber of commerce if you like. That she ceased her involvement a couple of years back, and I think she’s been quite upfront in the way that she’s dealt with that.
David Bevan: Has she ever lobbied you over China?
Simon Birmingham: No.
David Bevan: Do you have any concerns that she might be serving two masters?
Simon Birmingham: No.
David Bevan: Rebekha Sharkie, is this a beat up?
Rebekha Sharkie: Look, I think it possibly is. Look, just going back to the to the trade matters for China I’d just like say my growers – because I have a number of wineries in Mayo as well, I think we have now six wine regions – there has been a very strong push to grow your business into China. But I’d like to make sure, and I’d like to think the Government can do even more to support growers to move into other areas of Asia as well, to strengthen our trade in Japan and South Korea. When I was visiting there last year, there is enormous opportunity for us to grow more widely rather than just looking at China, which obviously is our biggest trading partner. And that’s something certainly that my growers are really keen to do. And I think that we need to make sure we have some insurance policies around our trade.
David Bevan: Nick Champion, Labor Member for Spence – should people be worried about the Gladys Lius and the Jennifer Yangs of the world? That is candidates – and in this case a successful candidate – who have ties to- the organisation is called the World Trade United Foundation. The organisation is a non-profit body dedicated to promoting free trade, but China experts say it’s part of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front work activities.
Nick Champion: Well I think we have to have a sophisticated understanding of China and I don’t think we or our public debate always reflects that. So I think that’s the first- I think there’s a number of academics who have said we should enhance our understanding and study of China and that includes the way its government operates and the way its society operates and their sense of history which I think is a very important thing.
So I think we need to put all these things in context. There are very few formal organisations in China which are not connected to the government in some way. And so, this has always been the dilemma I think is that we want to engage with China, we want them to rise peacefully, we want them to be economically prosperous, we want them to have- you know, they have the right to choose their own government. But obviously if you have economic growth normally you get civil rights and political rights as part of that. That’s been the growth trajectory of many nations.
So we have a sophisticated understanding of China but people have to have their eyes wide open. And I think Richard McGregor and other academics have helped us do that. And so it’s- you might participate in these organisations but you do need to be careful I think of knowing what they are and their connections to the government of China.
David Bevan: At nine minutes to nine. Before you all leave us, two sets of jobs: the big jobs- the many jobs at the subs, we’re going to lose those to WA aren’t we? These are the maintenance jobs for the Collins class submarines.
Nick Champion: Well we don’t need to. Sustainment jobs are very important. This is as big as Holden and I know the impact that that had. The problem is that we’ve got a state government that’s asleep at the wheel.
David Bevan: Well, it’s not as big as Holden. This is 700 jobs we’re talking about.
Nick Champion: I mean, mate, in terms of its economic impact, at least as big as Holden. And the problem we’ve got is we’ve got the West Australian Premier running around with a study he’s commissioned saying you can just simply pick up these sustainment jobs and shift them to WA. Now, we’ve done a lot of work on Collins class sustainment. We will probably face something of a submarine gap, I think, in in the future so we’re going to have to keep the Collins in the water longer. The last thing we want to do is muck up something that is currently working very well, and the South Australian Premier should commission his own study – should have done it before now – should be out there, in the in the Federal Government’s ear. And we all know that- I’m sure Simon will be fighting for South Australian jobs, but we need the South Australian Liberals to get motivated because if they’re not, I can tell you the West Australians are very motivated.
Ali Clarke: Well here’s some of the rhetoric coming from West Australian Premier McGowan.
Mark McGowan: I mean fair to say the South Australian Premier, I think, wouldn’t know the difference between a submarine and a limousine. He wouldn’t know the difference between a periscope and stethoscope, Mr Speaker.
[End of excerpt]
Ali Clarke: So, Simon Birmingham, what are you doing to try to counter that and to shore up these jobs for us here in South Australia?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I hadn’t heard that- those rather ridiculous comments from the Labor Premier of WA, Mark McGowan. Steven Marshall and I have spoken about this issue, and I know Steven has spoken with the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister, and that he is working very hard in terms of making sure the case is made for SA. My position is very clear, as I said yesterday, that this issue is only on the agenda because questions were raised about the capacity of the Osborne shipyards to be able to build all of the new submarines, build all the new frigates, and maintain all of the sustainment work. But my view is that they’re doing a brilliant job on the sustainment work down there and as long as those capacity issues, in terms of the space, the facilities, and the workforce can all be addressed, then there’s no reason why the work ought not continue there at Osborne.
David Bevan: Rebehka Sharkie, let’s finish on one man’s job. That is Christopher Pyne. He used to be the Defence Minister and Defence Industries Minister. He’s gone on to get a job for Ernst & Young. It’s now called EY, the business consultancy. ABC reports that EY has given a statement to Parliament. The statement of ministerial standards bans former ministers from taking jobs in their areas of ministerial expertise for 18 months after leaving office. But EY partner Mark Stewart has made a submission saying that on 8 April 2019, I met with Mr Pyne to discuss his retirement from politics. At this meeting, we discussed Mr Pyne’s post retirement plans and his interest in utilising his experience as a politician and minister to assist a professional services firm grow their private sector defence industry business. Is that good enough?
Rebehka Sharkie: Well timing is everything, isn’t it David. Look, I think in the interest of transparency, Christopher Pyne should front the committee. Look, it’s understandable that if you are leaving politics, you would be obviously looking to your future, looking to your employment future. But really my thinking is that those meetings should have been held after he left the job, so perhaps he should come and front the committee and explain.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, does Christopher Pyne have some explaining to do?
Simon Birmingham: Well these issues were looked at by the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, who assessed them against the ministerial code. He independently found that there was no breach of the code. Now, yes, there’s a Parliamentary committee running its course and run its course. I’ve got no doubt it will do and this is obviously part of that committee’s work.
Ali Clarke: Nick Champion, the final word?
Nick Champion: Well, this is really an issue for the prime minister.
David Bevan: Oh, come on. You think it would pass the pub test?
Nick Champion: Well I guess the Prime Minister’s got to work out whether it passes a pub test or any other test. I mean it’s his ministerial code and he’s got an obligation to fulfil it. Obviously there’s a Parliamentary inquiry. I’ve always found that it’s best- if you’re asked to come before a Parliamentary inquiry, it’s probably best to show up and say your piece.
Ali Clarke: All right. And after all that bring the lime ice-cream perhaps. Thank you very much.
David Bevan: Splice.
Ali Clarke: Splice for you. Nick Champion, thank you very much. Rebehka Sharkie and Simon Birmingham, thank you very much.