Sabra Lane: Australia is making its displeasure clear of China’s threat of economic retaliation in response to the Federal Government’s push for a global investigation into the source and handling of the coronavirus outbreak. The Chinese ambassador has been asked to explain his threat of consumer boycotts of Australian tourism, universities, and agriculture. It comes as the Federal Trade Minister Simon Birmingham joins his counterparts from the UK, New Zealand, and Singapore in co-authoring an article appealing to nations to resist the urge to reimpose trade barriers in response to the pandemic. Senator Birmingham joined me earlier.
Sabra Lane: Simon Birmingham, good morning and welcome to AM.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Sabra.
Sabra Lane: Who is this article aimed at? China or the United States?
Simon Birmingham: This is simply a statement from the United Kingdom, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, as open trading nations to the world that it is important that we maintain those open trading, rules- based settings long into the future that is crucial for the economic recovery. That open trading arrangement have contributed much to lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, to making economies more productive and efficient, to growing standards of living, and they will be crucial to the recovery. And that all nations ought to bear that in mind.
Sabra Lane: Minister, there are calls from your own side of politics, though, to consider economic sovereignty as a primary factor for Australia and be less reliant on China. There are also calls to refocus on building domestic capacity. Isn’t your article also a message for them?
Simon Birmingham: All of us in this article co-authored by the four different trade ministers across the world have acknowledged that countries will no doubt look to areas of essential national capability after this pandemic, and that’s important. Australia’s advanced manufacturing industry can hold its head high, where businesses have been able to pivot quickly to be able to make more respirators, more face masks, more hand sanitiser, and that seems to the credit of those businesses and no doubt we want to see continued growth in advanced manufacturing.
Sabra Lane: The Chinese Ambassador’s warning to Australia has been interpreted as blackmail and coercion, warning that exports and tourism might be under threat if Australia pushes ahead with this inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. How do you interpret his comments?
Simon Birmingham: This pandemic is causing enormous economic costs here in Australia and around the world, as well as tragic, tragic loss of life. And Australia is no more going to change our policy position on a major public health issue because of economic coercion, or threats of economic coercion, then we would change our policy position in matters of national security. And surely, I think Australians would expect that our government is certainly concerned that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people around the world warrant transparent investigation to prevent it from happening again.
Sabra Lane: How do you interpret those comments, though? Are they disappointing?
Simon Birmingham: Well they are disappointing, Sabra. And as I said, we won’t be burying our policy position on what is a matter of an enormous public health consequence in the face of any suggestion or threats of economic coercion.
Sabra Lane: Has the Government attempted to call the ambassador to discuss his comments?
Simon Birmingham: The Government’s had discussions with the ambassador.
Sabra Lane: And what was the response? Was he called in to Parliament or was it a telephone call?
Simon Birmingham: He had a discussion with the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Sabra Lane: And the response?
Simon Birmingham: Oh look, that’s for the ambassador to choose to make public his views. But our government is very clear that we’ve seen enormous loss of life around the world, of hundreds of thousands of people, huge economic disruption to billions of lives across the planet. And of course that warrants transparent investigation to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Let me also be clear that any policy differences we have, policy differences with the government of China, and they shouldn’t, not from our end or from their end, get in the way of continuing to have a positive people to people relations and dialogue, positive business to business relations, and engagement. Our economy is a crucial supplier to the Chinese economy, just as China’s economy indeed supplies valuable goods, resources, and services to Australia’s economy. And we want to maintain that positive relationship and enhance it where we can in the future.
Sabra Lane: The Daily Telegraph reports this morning that the Five Eyes intelligence network is looking at two Wuhan-based scientists who were studying bats and coronaviruses and they both apparently previously studied in Australia. Are allies concerned that this might have been the origin for the pandemic?
Simon Birmingham: Well obviously we want to see a transparent investigation into the matter. Now, I don’t, government does not comment on national security or intelligence matters, that’s a longstanding practice. I’m not aware of any such investigations. I wouldn’t comment on them even if I were. However, we want to see transparent investigations into the causes so that we can prevent such repeats of pandemics in the future wherever possible.
Sabra Lane: The Government is now offering money to keep 100 zoos and aquariums going here in Australia. Can any of them receive this money or is there an eligibility threshold they must meet?
Simon Birmingham: So this is an important package, because of course we have bans, essentially visitors – paying visitors – entering our exhibiting zoos and aquariums across Australia. And so we’re providing this support to be able to ensure that animals can still be fed, cared for, veterinary support, essential research that many undertake as well. And they must be exhibiting zoos and aquariums, but it is scaled according to the size of them and open to essentially all of those across the country.
Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for talking to AM this morning.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sabra. My pleasure.
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Sabra Lane: That’s the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham.