• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: China-Australia trade relationship.
13 May 2020

Nicole Chvastek: Well, the headline is the great brawl with China, and it appears our large trading partner is clearly not impressed at the Prime Minister’s call for an inquiry into the origins and spread of the sometimes fatal and regularly economy wrecking coronavirus pandemic.


Scott Morrison: We know it started in China. We know it started in Wuhan. The most likely scenario that has been canvassed relates to wildlife wet markets but that’s a matter that would have to be thoroughly assessed. This is one of the reasons why it is important that we just have an objective, independent assessment of how this originated and learn the lessons from how that occurred.

[End of excerpt]

Nicole Chvastek: In fact, China has made it abundantly clear that it is not impressed. Here is the Foreign Minister Wang Yi.


Wang Yi: Some wrong words and deeds by Australia recently that have aroused dissatisfaction among the Chinese people.

[End of excerpt]

Nicole Chvastek: Now, The Age reports that the dairy industry has called a snap meeting with the Federal Government as fears grow of a third strike from Beijing in retaliation for Australia’s pursuit of a global inquiry after its banned imports from four of Australia’s largest abattoirs for technical infringements and put $200 million a month in trade under threat. And of course, it follows another threat to hit 600 million dollars’ worth of Australian barley with tariffs of up to 80 per cent.

Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Simon Birmingham, good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon, Nicole. Good to be with you.

Nicole Chvastek: What was the outcome of that meeting with dairy industry representatives?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Agriculture Minister has or is meeting with dairy industry representatives. Now, I understand that it’s on a range of matters that are already prescheduled forward discussion. I understand that across Australian agriculture in particular — all of our export sectors, generally — there would be a degree of angst as a result of some of the headlines of recent days and news coverage of recent days.

I’d say to all of those exporters that the Government is doing all we can in terms of engaging thoroughly, calmly with Chinese officials to- to address the barley issue, to address the beef industry issue. And those Chinese officials have said, both publicly and privately, that these are matters that have been variously 12 to 18 months in the pipeline, they are technical matters under trade law, and China has themselves said that they’re unrelated to broader questions or other issues of debate as part of our relationship.

Nicole Chvastek: Well, they would say that on the surface but the reality is that this is China’s playbook, that they often weaponise their economic might in order to make points.

Simon Birmingham: Well you, as a commentator, can make those comments. I’m Australia’s Trade Minister and it’s my job to try to get the best outcomes for our exporters, farmers and businesses; to do so without in any way compromising the rest of our national interest or values. And the best way that I can do that is to make clear that whilst Australia will stand firm in relation to policy positions that are in our national security interest or public health interest or the like, we will equally respect and engage appropriately on trade and economic matters to try to get to a resolution to these types of technical issues.

Nicole Chvastek: It sounds like a nice plan, but how do you get out of the trap? If you pursue the inquiry, we lose millions of dollars in trade, and if we back down, we give the green light to what Greg Sheridan described today in The Australian as naked coercion and intimidation.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Australia is not the only country in the world asking for investigation around COVID-19 but …

Nicole Chvastek: Yeah. But we’re the one that China is targeting?

Simon Birmingham: Far from it. We are supporting a European Union resolution through the World Health Assembly.

Nicole Chvastek: We are the one that China is upset with.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’d encourage you to have a look at perhaps some decisions being made elsewhere around the world there. There are a range of some of the technical trade issues being pursued with other countries. Now, I’m not going to ascribe motivations to it. I said before, my job as Trade Minister is to try the best we can to get the best outcomes for Australian industry. Our trade exports remain at record levels. We’ve seen a record trade surplus recorded again in March of this year despite the impact of COVID-19 on a range of markets and we’ve seen growth in many markets other than China during the early months of this year. And so we’re going to continue to hard to maintain that market access into China but also to make sure that our exporters have as many other choices of where to do business as they can too.

Nicole Chvastek: Are we going to stop calling for the international coronavirus inquiry? Are we going to accede to their demands?

Simon Birmingham: No. Our position in relation to the need for an inquiry and investigation is clear. As I said before, we will be supporting the European Union motion that goes to the World Health Assembly. You’ve got a circumstance where hundreds of thousands of people around the world have died, millions of people have lost their jobs, and billions of people have had their lives disrupted. The least the world can expect is an investigation to help us learn lessons that might enable us to avoid a repeat or minimise the harm if there is a repeat of this sometime in the future.

Nicole Chvastek: Is the dairy industry next? And what of the wine industry? Shipments were held up at Chinese customs ports after the introduction of foreign interference laws and the banning of Huawei.

Simon Birmingham: Well there’s no reason to believe that any other industry necessarily faces any disruption to their trade. I’d say to all industries that to protect yourself, the best thing you can do first and foremost is make sure that you dot the I’s, cross the T’s, get all of those customs quarantine and regulatory processes right.

Nicole Chvastek: But this isn’t about regulatory process, is it? The reality is …

Simon Birmingham: Well that’s what is being used in relation to four abattoirs. So …

Nicole Chvastek: Sure, but that’s not what the reality. That’s not what the real problem is. The real problem is that Australia is calling for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Simon Birmingham: Well again, I’ll let- commentators can put motivations. That’s not my job. My job is to try to get outcomes for our industry, and that’s not going to be helped by me mouthing off with motivations and attaching them to any trading partner in relation to these sorts of matters. The point I was making is the four abattoirs in question had been notified at various times over the last- more than 12 months of discrepancies in relation to that labelling standards or other things. And the best way first and foremost for Australian exporters to protect themselves is to make sure that you’re not leaving yourself exposed by having any of those mistakes in the first place.

Nicole Chvastek: We’ve been speaking to some dairy farmers across regional Victoria who are particularly nervous today. Here’s what one told Ballarat Mornings:


Caller:  Look, we would all know that China’s going to be a little bit touchy about this, because there are other national leaders going at them hammer and tongs. So in that situation, I don’t think anyone should have said anything publicly. They should have quietly met with China and said, hey, it’s only because we need to know that we can sort this out in the future if that happens again, we’ve got a better idea of how to [indistinct], et cetera. They didn’t have to come out in the public and say anything. And I think in a sense, if people in government don’t learn from this, then perhaps that doesn’t bode well for our politics, does it?

[End of Excerpt]

Nicole Chvastek: Minister, do you think that the Morrison Government has mishandled this issue?

Simon Birmingham: No I don’t, and I’d make a couple of observations in relation to that. One is that we live in a transparent and robust democracy where interviewers like yourself get to grill ministers like me. And for quite some time people had been asking the Prime Minister and other government ministers, what are you going to do in relation to COVID- 19? Will there be an inquiry? Will there be an investigation? So of course, in a country like Australia, leaders are going to be transparent. That’s the nature of living in a free, liberal democracy. And you’re going to have these sorts of issues aired in a public, open, transparent way. But we do so not to try to put blame on any one person or country. We do so just to try to make sure the world is better prepared for the future so that it doesn’t happen again. And if it does happen again, we at least can minimise the harm better next time around. And they are perfectly reasonable motivations for a government to pursue.

And I’d say at a broader level, that whilst of course we want to have the most respectful and engaging relationship with any of our partners — and China is a large and valued partner to Australia — we cannot operate in a position where we compromise on issues of national security or public health to appease any other country around the world. And we have to put our values, our interests, our security, our health first. But we do so in a context where we want to be as engaging and constructive with partners as we can, including on matters of trade and economics, as well as those matters of cooperation on health. And we want this to be an inquiry in which all countries cooperate and engage, including China.

Nicole Chvastek: That means they’re going to come after us.

Simon Birmingham: Well, again, that’s- you’re editorialising. I’m saying that for Australia, our approach has got to be to stand firm in terms of our policy positions, to be strong in defence of our values, to be respectful in our language and engagement, and to work with partners where we can in areas of mutual interest in agreement. And that’s the approach we take.

Nicole Chvastek: Minister, thank you.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure.

Nicole Chvastek: Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.