Topics: Drought Assistance Package; Trade Deal; Australia- China Relationship; Human Rights Discussions.

Transcript, E&OE

6 November 2019

Lisa Millar: As the drought tightens its hold across Australia, Federal Cabinet is expected to meet today to discuss extra assistance for farmers and regional communities. The multimillion dollar package is likely to be released later this week. Farmers have been begging for urgent assistance including exit packages for those who want to leave the land permanently.

Michael Rowland: It comes as the Government touts the benefits of this week’s historic trade deal with 14 other nations in the Asia-Pacific which will be signed into force next year. The Federal Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has been part of those talks and he joins us now from Shanghai.

Minister, good morning to you. I want to talk about trade in just a moment, but firstly, to drought. As a cabinet member, obviously you won’t be there as part of the meeting today, but what can farmers expect from this latest package from the Federal Government?

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Michael. Look, obviously, I won’t pre-empt what may be determined and announced by the Prime Minister in coming days, weeks or months, because of course what we’ve done in terms of the drought is have a continuous strategy of response, that there’s been regular ongoing engagement with drought-affected communities and representative organisations. There’s been some $7 billion worth of investment to date to provide direct support to farmers, direct support to drought-affected communities, and to invest in building greater resilience in the future, and knowing that Australia is a country where droughts, floods, natural disasters come and go and that we have to be better prepared for these eventualities and help communities to build resilience. I have no doubt that the Prime Minister, who is regularly engaged in drought-affected communities, will be, as he has been continuously, looking at what else can be done in a tangible way to ease the burden on those communities and to make sure that when the drought ends, they’re able to rebuild their businesses and continue to make the incredible contribution that Australian farming communities and regional Australia makes to our nation.

Michael Rowland: Okay. Now, you’re there in Shanghai, in part to attend the big expo there. You’re leading a contingent of a couple of hundred Australian business leaders. How confident are you, Simon Birmingham, as part of this process, the first senior Australian official to visit Beijing in about 12 months, you can help salvage this really battered Australia-China relationship?

Simon Birmingham: Michael, I wouldn’t characterise it as that. And indeed, this is my third visit to China within the last 12 months. And importantly, I’m here with, as you say, more than 200 Australian businesses who are here at the invitation of the Chinese Government to participate in a massive import expo that China hosts and that they bring their businesses to, which helps to underpin the enormous volume of trade that we have. More than $200 billion of Australian exports, and that’s what helps to sustain the one in five Australian jobs that are trade dependent and trade related. And so I’m confident that we have a partnership with China, which the Prime Minister in his meeting over the weekend with Premier Li Keqiang, recommitted Australia to, and that was a commitment shared by China. And we’re going to continue to support our businesses, our peoples, our cultural institutions, our educational institutions, to successfully collaborate and build the relationship even further into the future.

Michael Rowland: Even Li Keqiang said ahead of the meeting with the Prime Minister that relations had got off track. So what sort of work needs to be done to get them back on track?

Simon Birmingham: Well we continue to focus on building that partnership. And it’s a strong one at so many levels. Now yes, we have points of difference, and we need to be able to honestly acknowledge those points of difference, work through them as we do. But this isn’t something new. On matters like human rights, we’ve had points of difference going back decades. But we’ve been able to responsibly, respectfully work through those issues, stay true to our values as Australians — which is important — but still build an incredible relationship that is complementary to both our economies. We welcome the fact that China is a much more successful, much more prosperous nation today than it was decades ago. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, and Australia has played a role in that in terms of the role that our economy, our industry, our businesses and support have been able to help facilitate that growth in China. And we’re confident that we can sustain an incredibly complementary relationship long term into the future.

Michael Rowland: You talk about raising human rights concerns, but every time one of your colleagues does, as the Foreign Minister Marise Payne did very recently, she was quickly been told by the Chinese authorities to essentially get back in her lane. How conductive is that sort of reaction from the Chinese to a long and prosperous and happy relationship?

Simon Birmingham: Michael, you’ve been around politics reporting for a long time now, and you would know full well that those types of dialogues in relation to human rights matters are not new. As I say, they go back decades. Successive Australian prime ministers have dealt with some of these issues, but it hasn’t prevented us from getting on and sealing a world-leading China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. And from our businesses, and our other institutions, and our people, sealing enormous exchange of trade and investment and, of course, a range of deepening cultural relationships that exist as well. Here, over the course of this week, the couple of hundred Australian businesses who are here will engage with many thousands of Chinese counterparts, and they’re the ones who day in, day out sustain those record trade volumes and create jobs in Australia and in China simultaneously.

Michael Rowland: Okay, Trade Minister, our time is out. In Shanghai, thank you so much for joining us on News Breakfast.