Interview on ABC Radio Canberra, AM with Sabra Lane

Topics: Chinese Interference in Australia; Human Rights Violations; Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
25 November 2019

Sabra Lane: To discuss that and the claims China tried to install an agent of influence in the Federal Parliament, I was joined a short time ago by Simon Birmingham, the Federal Trade Minister.

Minister, good morning and welcome to the program.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Sabra.

Sabra Lane: China claims Mr Wong is a fraudster. How urgently is the Government investigating his bona fides and the interference claims?

Simon Birmingham: Australians should be reassured that our national security agencies do a thorough job in relation to such claims that they are on the job and we’ve seen that in relation to the statement released overnight by the Director-General of Security from ASIO. Everyone should also be reassured that, as a government, we’ve already taken steps to safeguard Australia’s values and democracy through the establishment of the new National Coordinator for Countering Foreign Interference, through passing new legislation into foreign interference and in terms of strengthening the assessment of investments in critical infrastructure and in emerging technologies.

Sabra Lane: Okay. But what about his particular claims that Beijing tried to pay for the political campaign of a Liberal Party member with the aim of getting him into Parliament? That man is now dead. How worried are you by all of this?

Simon Birmingham: Well these are disturbing claims, Sabra. Now, properly, his death will be thoroughly investigated by the Coroner in Victoria and properly, our national security agencies have indicated that they were aware of these claims and are on the case and will work thoroughly through them. And we ought to make sure that as we defend our system, we also back our system; our system in terms of the role of the judiciary and the work of the Coroner; our system in terms of the role of our national security agencies and that as politicians and Cabinet ministers, we don’t prejudge those circumstances but we fully support them and ensure, as our government has done, that they have the legislative backing and the funding to be able to do those jobs.

Sabra Lane: The Government has been aware that some Australian dual citizens have been detained in Jinjiang. But new revelations by the ABC suggests that number could be 23 people. What are you going to do about that?

Simon Birmingham: Sabra, we have of course consistently raised at a bilateral level between foreign ministers, by our Prime Minister and through appropriate international events and foreign, our concerns in relation to human rights violations in those spaces. We also continually raise our concerns in relation to individual consular cases and we’ve been very clear, the Foreign Minister in particular, Marise Payne has been very clear that we will continue to raise those concerns where we hold them directly with relevant Chinese authorities.

Sabra Lane: Australia’s previously voiced its disquiet about how the Uighurs are being treated and about the protests in Hong Kong. China doesn’t seem to pay much attention to those interjections. How worried is the Government about the economic consequences in delivering message to Beijing?

Simon Birmingham: Well we work very hard to make sure that, as a government, we have as cooperative and engaging a relationship as we can that facilitates trade flows but also provides us with a platform to be able to raise these concerns and to have dialogue in relation to human rights matters. And so having that relationship and working on that partnership with China has seen change over decades in relation to providing better educational opportunities, better healthcare opportunities as Chinese citizens have been lifted out of poverty. But obviously, concerns remain in relation to areas of human rights violation and that’s why we continue to use not just our bilateral relationship, but the appropriate fora such as the United Nations, such as the Human Rights Council to work through these issues with other countries who share our concerns too.

Sabra Lane: Australia was reluctant to join the Beijing headquartered Australia- Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank given what’s now claimed about China’s reach and influence, particularly in our region. Was it a wise decision to be a member?

Simon Birmingham: I think we have managed to take a very careful path through all of the decisions that need to be made and have been over recent years and in relation to that one, it stands distinct from other areas where we have concern that there may be lesser respect for or regard for sovereignty in debt faced by other nations for relationship or for example, in relation to financing of infrastructure projects or the like. And so we’ve taken a cautious approach in all of these considerations and we’ll continue to do so.

Sabra Lane: Would we ever consider dropping our membership if that is the signal that needs to be sent?

Simon Birmingham: We’ll consider all of these things on their individual merits as we ought to do and that’s the approach that we take and to make sure that we can raise concerns as we need to. But also we ought to ensure that we have a relationship that allows us to be able to raise issues and concerns and that requires sitting down at the table from time to time and being able to do that. And we ought also to recognise that the progress that’s been made over decades in terms of advances in relation to the lifestyle and rights of certain Chinese citizens have been significant, not those that Australians enjoy. And our system, as the Prime Minister’s made clear again and again, is very different to China’s system; we’re not seeking to adopt their system; they don’t seek to adopt ours but we do seek to stand up for our values in relation to the human rights of all peoples across the world.

Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for talking to AM.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sabra.

Sabra Lane: That’s the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham.