Topics: Australia-China trade relationship; International student pilot program;




Michael Rowland:        Let’s take you to Canberra where the Federal Government is taking China to the World Trade Organization, over Beijing’s decision to slap tariffs – very big tariffs on imports of Australian barley. Finance and Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham, joins us from Parliament House. Minister, the grain growers are firmly backing you in. So, will the Federal Government now push the button on this challenge to the World Trade Organization?


Simon Birmingham:     Thanks, Michael. A final decision has not yet been made, but it is certainly our instinct that we ought to use all avenues available to defend the integrity of Australian producers. We know that our grain growers, just like our winemakers, aren’t government subsidised. They don’t dump their product on global markets below value and that Australia is a country who has been a member of the WTO and its predecessor entity, since 1948, believes in a rules-based system for trade. And when you believe in a rules-based system and you think that the rules are being broken, then you ought to call in the independent umpire to help to resolve those sorts of issues. Now, in doing so, we’d love to resolve it in a manner faster than the WTO offers. One of our most recent WTO challenges was actually against Canada, over a wine industry matter. Although we formally launched that and got the processes underway, we ultimately withdrew that case because we resolved it through dialogue between the parties. And that remains our preference with China, with any other party, including India who we have a WTO dispute with at present, to come to the table and resolve those issues where we can.


Michael Rowland:        Okay. Realistically though, given, where the relationship with China is at the moment? It’s not great as everybody knows watching this show, what are the chances of any successful dialogue happening? I mean, you can’t even pick up the phone to speak to your counterpart in Beijing?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, I can pick up the phone, but unfortunately, they’re not choosing to do so.


Michael Rowland:        Well, it takes two to tango, doesn’t it? You know, you’re calling, there’s no one answering, there’s no dialogue?


Simon Birmingham:      It does, Michael. But, I just make the point there, because I think it’s an important one for everyone to understand. Australia’s position on the China relationship hasn’t changed. We remain a country that wants an economically prosperous China, that wants to see China succeed and wants to engage with China. We remain a country willing to have discussions and dialogue with China. Yes, we stand firm in terms of our values and the protection of national security and our critical infrastructure and so on. But, we haven’t changed and China however is a country now that we see on the world stage taking a tone and a stance that is more challenging, not just with Australia, but it’s engagement with others. And unfortunately, they are unwilling to have that dialogue, but we believe that the best way to resolve these sorts of things is always through dialogue and our consistent approach is we’re up for that and we urge them to come to the table.


Michael Rowland:        Okay. A few other issues before we leave; our top story of this hour, of course, was the return of those international students to Darwin. We’re getting responses from people like Bob, and I’ll read his tweets word for word: it’s disgusting that international students are allowed to return, taking up limited quarantine spaces when Australians are still trapped overseas. The Government should be ashamed. So, the Government has said Australians take priority. So, what’s happening here with this pilot program?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, from the Federal Government’s prospective, Australians do take priority. The NT has managed to create some additional places, I understand to deal with this pilot and these students. But, other pilots, in other states, have tried to get off the ground haven’t gone ahead, because we’ve said very clearly that returning Australians must take priority. We’ve managed to grow the capacity in hotel quarantine for those returning Australians. Our opening of hundreds of places at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory has achieved that, in addition to that we’ve seen other states lift their numbers to around 5600 that we’re able to take at present. And that will grow when Victoria comes online next week to about 6700 places in hotel quarantine, for us to be able to safely transition those returning Australians.


Michael Rowland:        Okay. Fewer Australians are needing to gain access to JobKeeper. What does that say to the Federal Government about where the still nascent economic recovery is at in Australia?


Simon Birmingham:      Look, the road back isn’t going to be completely smooth and easy. But, Australia can say that not only have we managed the health crisis caused by COVID better than most other countries in the world, we also managed the economic crisis better than most other countries in the world. That we’ve seen around 560,000 jobs re-created over the last few months, that we’ve seen JobKeeper work to save jobs far in excess of what our budget projections were in term of businesses coming back to full strength and no longer needing JobKeeper. This is great news, but we know the path ahead is still going to be a tough one for many and it’s why we continue to invest in JobMaker and job creation programs because it’s going to be so crucial for the pathway back.


Michael Rowland:        And finally, the Government – as you have, this morning, talked a lot about adhering to the rules-based order when it comes to those trade disputes. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has come out swinging against Australia saying Australia’s credibility in terms of following the rules-based order is shattered care of those SAS war crimes allegations in Afghanistan. The question I want to ask you though, Minister, should we be taking lessons from of all countries, on the rules-based orders, from Russia?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, Australia has shown a degree of accountability and transparency through the review that we’ve undertaken, published and responding to that is sorely lacking in a number of other countries.


Michael Rowland:        Including Russia?


Simon Birmingham:      I’ll let others draw the conclusion there. But I think Australia can take pride in the overwhelming work of the vast majority of our servicemen and women. Obviously, these are terribly instances that have occurred, but unlike other countries who may well just sweep these things under the carpet, we undertook a thorough investigation. We’ve been transparent about it and we’re applying remedies to address it and you wouldn’t see that in many other parts of the world.


Michael Rowland:        We’ll leave it there. Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.


Simon Birmingham:      Thanks, Michael.