Interview on ABC News Breakfast with Michael Rowland

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Chinese attempted political interference in Australia; Thermal Coal in Chinese Ports; Free Trade Agreements.
25 November 2019

Lisa Millar: The head of ASIO issued a rare public statement, confirming the national spy agency was aware of an alleged Chinese plot to infiltrate Australia’s Parliament. The explosive allegations aired on 60 Minutes last night. It suggests Chinese operative offered $1 million to fund Liberal Party member Nick Zhao’s tilt at parliament.

Michael Rowland: The 32-year-old was found dead in a Melbourne motel room after reportedly approaching ASIO to disclose the plot. It is being described as one of the clearest examples of Chinese attempts to interfere in a western democracy. For more on this story, the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now from Canberra.

Minister, this is a distinct worry, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Michael. Look, these stories are of course of concern, that’s why we have all the appropriate agencies undertaking the appropriate investigations into that. You’ve seen overnight the statement from the Director-General of Security of ASIO about the work that they’re undertaking, and it’s important that we back in those agencies, and our Government has been doing that over recent years, ensuring that Australia is well-positioned to deal with the type of foreign influence and interference that we’ve been seeing, increasing over recent years as agencies have previously publicly acknowledged. And we’ve made sure we’ve given them those resources by appointing the National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator by strengthening and establishing new foreign interference legislation. By boosting the resourcing of those intelligence agencies and by putting in place new protections and safeguards around investment, in critical infrastructure, and emerging technologies. And so these are very important steps we’ve taken to make sure we can safeguard Australia’s values and our democracy for the future.

Michael Rowland: There’s foreign interference, and there’s foreign interference, isn’t there? On face value, this is quite an alleged brazen attempt to install a Chinese spy into the building from which you’re sitting.

Simon Birmingham: And it’s important that we make sure the proper processes on this matters are followed in terms of the right authorities undertaking investigations and do so thoroughly, as I have confidence that they will and are doing. It’s not a matter for politicians, such as myself, to prejudge the outcome of those investigations or the allegations that are made, but certainly for us to make sure that the relevant agencies have the legislative tools and the resourcing to do the job our nation expects of them. And we’ve provided them with those additional powers and additional resourcing over recent years to make sure they’re fit for the task at hand.

Michael Rowland: Former Chinese spy Wang Liqiang told 60 Minutes and the Nine Newspapers over the weekend that the Chinese government was certainly seeking to interfere in countries, including Australia. He is now seeking asylum in Australia. Should he get it?

Simon Birmingham: Once again, Michael, if we’re going to defend our system and its process and values, we have to also back in that system and its processes and values. And so, when it comes to claims for asylum that are made, it will be thoroughly and properly assessed according to the individual merits of that case and the evidence that supports it, and that will then lead to a determination and a decision. And that’s the proper process, and I can once again assure viewers that the processes are in place and the system is working as it should in assessing those applications.

Michael Rowland: Okay. Now, the former ASIO boss Duncan Lewis has told Peter Hartcher as part of the latest Quarterly Essay that in his view, the Chinese Government is seeking to take over – his words – Australia’s political system. Do you agree with that assessment?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, that’s- I’ll let Duncan Lewis speak for himself, far be it for me to do so. What we have sought to do as a government, and again, this is what Australians I think care about, is what we do as a government in response to the threats that we face. Our intelligence agencies have publicly revealed before that there is an unprecedented level of foreign interference and activity that they see, not just from one country, but indeed a range of different actions and activities that we have to counter. That’s why as a government over the years, we have provided those agencies with more resourcing. We have brought new laws to the Parliament to establish the type of protections and frameworks around foreign influence and interference that are necessary, and that we’ve put in place greater protections in terms of certain areas of foreign investment as well.

So, it’s critical to know that we’ve taken the steps necessary to date, to provide the protection and I am confident that Australia’s democracy is as robust as ever, but also is vibrant and is driven very much by grassroots members of political organisations in Australia, engaging in those political activities. And we should also note that they come from all walks of life and that it’s important on a day like today when we’re talking about these matters of people or other nations, that we do welcome new Australians and their involvement in our democracy according to the established values of that democracy.

Michael Rowland: I want to talk about some of the trade deals where- that the Government is in the process of sealing, but let’s, before we move on to them, talk about trade with China. What is the latest with that thermal coal that is sitting at Chinese ports? It’s been delayed for some time. How much of it is still sitting there and what are the delays at the moment?

Simon Birmingham: Michael, we’ve actually seen enormous volumes of coal shifted through Chinese ports this year. Yes, there’ve been at times, instances of delays in relation to thermal coal. We’re actually around a point of time in the year where for the last 2 years we’ve seen some particular delays in relation to thermal coal and I won’t be surprised if we see some again this year. That is now following something of a pattern that relates more to domestic matters within China and restrictions they’re placing overall in terms of imports around this time of year.

Michael Rowland: Do you believe that assessment though, when we do know that other countries like Russia, Indonesia are getting their coal through Chinese ports? This isn’t any form of payback in your view?

Simon Birmingham: Look, when we look at the pattern now around the same time of year, each year, for, if it happens again this year, the third year in a row, then I think we can say that there are certain, we’ll call them uniquely market factors that are more government influenced there occurring and that they’re not directly targeting Australia in that case. But look, there are other concerns which we have raised in terms of the lack of processing in relation to applications by Australian beef abattoirs and processors, lack of processing of their applications for new permits into China. That comes with- at a time when we’ve seen record volumes and value of Australian meat and beef exports into China. So, it’s not holding back the amount that’s going in, but there are these administrative bug bears that we have raised directly with Chinese authorities and indeed, in relation to our barley growers. We continue to be frustrated by the fact that there is an anti-dumping investigation into Australian barley going into China, which we think has no basis and which whilst we respect China’s right to conduct the investigation, we urge for its conclusion as quickly as possible because it’s very important, not just for our barley producers, but also for Chinese businesses who rely upon Australian product.

Michael Rowland: Okay. Lots of frustrations there. Just very briefly before you go, we have these free trade agreements with Hong Kong, Indonesia and Peru before the Senate. Firstly, you expecting them to get through and more broadly, what do they mean for Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah. So I’m very positive that we should see passage of the legislation for these new trade agreements and particularly the Indonesia agreement is such a significant one for Australia, to deepen our relations with Indonesia. It will provide enhanced access in terms of tariff free flow of 500,000 tonnes of Australian grains into Indonesia. It will provide better access for Australian steel into Indonesia. But it also provides for deeper investment ties between Australia and Indonesia, which is what fuels the win-win outcomes there as well as Australian service providers in areas of education and healthcare, having more opportunity to deliver services in Indonesia which can lift the availability of those critical services for the Indonesian people. And so this is a huge opportunity for us to deepen our economic ties, but all of our relations with of course, such an important nation right on our doorstep, a very fast growing economy and a very significant population.

Michael Rowland: Simon Birmingham at Parliament House, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Michael.