• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Singapore air freight, coronavirus, China trade and investigation.
01 May 2020

Narelle Graham: South Australian Liberal Senator, Simon Birmingham is our Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment federally. Welcome to you.

Simon Birmingham: Hello, Narelle, good to be with you.

Narelle Graham: Yeah good to be with you too. What is the mood in the government like at the moment, Senator? I know that we are doing quite well here in South Australia. Is it one of surprise? Is it one of pride with ho we have handled the COVID-19 pandemic in this country?

Simon Birmingham: If I had to characterize it, I’d probably say it is one of thanks and relief. Thanks to the Australian people for the fact that when we’ve sent the message out to people to apply social distancing principles, to be responsible when it comes to the way in which they are going to do basic things like hand hygiene and adhere the messages about not gathering in large groups and to resist breaking the rules we’ve put where we’ve limited peoples’ activity in some way. They’ve headed that. They’ve followed through with those. It’s gratitude and thanks to that. And it is indeed them also that sense of relief that we’ve managed to slow the spread of COVID-19 in a way that we probably didn’t think was possible. And certainly the rest of the world has shown is unlikely but Australia’s done it. And we’ve slowed it and that means we’ve avoided the scenes of mass graves they’ve had in New York or huge overflowing hospitals in parts of Europe. And so at present when many Australians are probably saying we think this turned out okay, you know, we haven’t seen these sort of horrific health outcomes. We do need to remember the images that we saw from overseas over the last few weeks and just how bad they were. And the reason we’ve got it so much better here is because of the effort of every single South Australian to make it that much better.

Narelle Graham: I’m very proud. And after having a test last week too, Senator it just really proud to be Australian at the moment. Really proud to be South Australian. Let’s talk about this new freight- air freight deal that’s been done. Is this a permanent arrangement, a couple of flights a week? Or two flights and we see how that goes?

Simon Birmingham: It’s not permanent it lasts over the space of a few months. So there’s some certainty there for our exporters who worked so hard to be able to secure access and contracts in different markets across Asia. You’re in South Australia where a long distance in terms of the flight time to get into those Asian markets relative to other parts of the country. And so you’ve got to work hard to win those contracts and to get there and more than 90 per cent of Australia’s air freight goes out traditionally in the bellies of passenger aircrafts. And obviously those passenger flights aren’t flying right now. So what we’ve had to do is find a way to get planes flying without passengers but still able to put the freight on board. And that’s why the Federal Government stepped in and provided a facility that’s supplying right across the country. But happily in terms of SA we’ve now found a way to build the viability for a system that gets us flights from Adelaide into Singapore which of course is one of the biggest hubs in Asia in general being able to get that freight out of the other cities of the Asian region.

Narelle Graham: Right, so I’m going to ask you that, it’s not just a matter of trading only with Singapore. It’s getting it to Singapore and then from there the producer is able to move those to other locations around the world, particularly I assume Asia. Why did you choose Singapore Airlines?

Simon Birmingham: So Singapore Airlines already had a regular service into Adelaide. So they obviously had the understanding of the Adelaide market, the freight connections and the demands of the South Australian producers was equally aligned. Because of that service they knew that they could get their product to Singapore and then out into the other cities within the Asian region. So it came from both directions that we had the demand from exporters within South Australia and equally when we went out to the expressions of interest process with internationally align Singapore Airlines could present a compelling bid as to why they were able to do it at the most cost effective price for taxpayers. It’s important to emphasize to listeners this is not a free ride for exporters and you can still pay to get your product to market. Nobody’s doing it cheaper than they were before. So recognizing the fact that they can’t access a plane full of passengers that they used to be able to put certain quantities of fish or meat or other fresh produce onto that plane. Right now it’s just that products going on without you know human passengers onboard. So there’s obviously an increased cost or it’s not viable without some extra support to make that happen.

Narelle Graham: It’s fair to say there’ll be fairly high value product that will be air freighted. If I’m a small producer who maybe used to send product to Singapore, can I get some of my produce on these planes?

Simon Birmingham: Yes. Talk to your usual freight controller and coordinator there who might usually coordinate those things. Or if that’s not working talk to Austrade or just talk to my office. And the invitation is there, give it to [indistinct] in my office to be able to find a way to work that out. And the plan is that certainly if getting your product into Singapore is where you need to be then we should be able to find a way to facilitate that at the type of prices that we’re charging right now, which are commensurate with what you were charged with before.

If you needed your product to land in some other obscure part of the world, I’ve got to be honest and say that may not be possible right now and we’ve been honest all along that we won’t be able to save every business contract, every business, every job given the whole strange circumstances the world is facing. But certainly we’ve intervened in these sorts of exceptional ways to try to make sure we can save as many as is possible.

Narelle Graham: Been talking trade quite a bit on the program this week, Senator Simon Birmingham, and I quoted yesterday that the Chinese Embassy has labelled our government’s move to simply ask for an investigation into the origins of coronavirus to saying it’s politically motivated and commented that Australia is the chewing gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe, which is- we can gather from that the relations are somewhat strained at the moment. What is the future of our trade with China as it stands currently? You know, when we consider the relationship we have.

Simon Birmingham: I remain relatively optimistic that we will work through these government to government difficulties we have. Our beef is not a desire to have some sort of debate with the people of China about the cause or what drove or made COVID-19 happen around the world, and it’s not one about compensation or arguments of blame. It is purely a desire to have a genuine, independent, transparent inquiry to make sure that we don’t have the same circumstance happen again because we’ve had a circumstance where hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives millions of people have lost their jobs. Billions of people have been dislocated in some way in terms of the way in which they live their lives. And it’s a pretty reasonable equation to say: well, we ought to make sure we do everything possible to minimise the risk of the same thing happening again.

Narelle Graham: And I don’t think anyone is arguing with that, Senator, all that standpoint, but I think there is a lot of people that certainly wants the Government to get some answers on how this pandemic started because it really has absolutely rocked the world, as you rightly say. Is there a backup plan? Are you, as the Trade Minister for Australia, working on a backup plan if trade with China is to ease?

Simon Birmingham: So we have to understand that China will still be the second largest economy in the world, the biggest consumer market in our region, and I want to make sure that we maintain, as does the whole Government, the most positive relations we can with China. We’re going to continue to co-exist in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region forever. We both live in the same region and therefore need to make sure that we can work together, trade together, have people to people relations together that are very positive. But at the same time, of course, we want to make sure we increase more choices and options for Australian farmers and businesses to trade with other countries, which is why we’ve driven trade agreements not just with China but with Japan and Korea, with Vietnam or Canada or Indonesia. We pursue new agreements with the European Union or the UK and different types of strategies in terms of our India economic strategy there, with that huge booming markets in India. So, it is a case of opening new doors and new opportunities for Australian businesses but not doing so at the expense of China because China will remain a very important part of our dynamic, of our trading relationship, of our region, and we have to make sure that we don’t engage with them in a way that compromises our values or our system of government — and we stand strong and steadfast there — but equally that we do work to make sure that we engage as positively and productively as we can.

Narelle Graham: Senator Simon Birmingham, I understand your time is short. So is mine. Peter from Renmark has sent through a text on … I think just asking: who is going to shoulder the blame if things go haywire, Mr Birmingham? He- I believe Peter is referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, with this talk of easing restrictions from next Friday.

Well, discussing it next Friday. I should be clear.

Simon Birmingham: Yeah. We’ve made every decision so far trying to assess the health advice and make sure that we act upon that wherever possible. We also have to be conscious that we need Australians to be able to stay in jobs, for businesses to be able to be as viable as possible. And so, the decisions we’re going to make over the next little while, noting that South Australia has now recorded nine consecutive days of zero new cases of COVID-19, which is a magnificent achievement for Steven Marshall and the State Government in SA and all South Australians in terms of their contribution to it. But if we can keep that going, then of course, South Australians will rightly expect we should be able to get back to normal activity at some stage. It’s not viable for us to live forever in an economy where people can’t get out and run their businesses and participate in the economy and expect that government will simply provide subsidies for that.

Narelle Graham: Senator, if I can bring you back to Peter’s question and that is that who’s going to shoulder the blame? I think what he’s getting at is that is it going to be up to the medical officials to be making these decisions and advising the Government, and then, if it does go haywire, the Government has this opportunity to say: we were acting on medical advice.

Simon Birmingham: Well we will act on medical advice. But ultimately, when it comes to [indistinct], when it comes to the next federal election, when it comes to the next state election, it will be my job and the job of other members of the state and federal parliaments and the governments of the day that are on the line. So, ultimately, the government officials shoulder the blame, if that’s the question…

Narelle Graham: Yeah-

Simon Birmingham: …But we will make the decisions based on the best possible health advice, but also mindful of fact we want people to be able to keep their businesses, keep their jobs, keep their livelihoods along the way.

Narelle Graham: Thank you very much. Senator Simon Birmingham, he’s a Liberal Senator for South Australia, also our Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Thank you for your question Peter.