Topics:  Christian Porter; Barnaby Joyce; China-Australia trade relationship; Murray-Darling Basin Plan;



Sally Sara: The government is vowing to vigorously defend Australian exports that are the subject of a complaint by China to the World Trade Organisation, tensions between the two countries have escalated again, with China appealing to the WTO over duties on wind towers, stainless steel sinks and rail wheels. It’s seen as a tit for tat reaction to Australia’s WTO case against China over barley and wine tariffs. Simon Birmingham is Finance Minister and joins us. Minister, welcome back to RN Breakfast.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Sally. Great to speak with you again.


Sally Sara: Firstly, the dossier released by the federal court yesterday that details rape allegations against your colleague, Christian Porter. Have you read that dossier?


Simon Birmingham: No, I haven’t, Sally.


Sally Sara: Why is that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, firstly, it was released by the Federal Court only yesterday. Secondly, I mean, I saw some of the extracts that were published by media quite some time ago, but that’s literally the only access that I’ve ever had to such information.


Sally Sara: Is it something that you think you will read?


Simon Birmingham: Well Sally, it’s something obviously I’ve seen the media coverage on. In the end, these matters, like any such claims, are rightly investigated by the appropriate independent authorities in countries like Australia that’s our independent police forces. And if it progresses from their courts, that’s the right for their analysis or consideration.


Sally Sara: On other issues connected to women, Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce will take a seat on the Cabinet Taskforce on Women’s Security. Is that appropriate?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the point of the taskforce is to bring together the record number of women who sit around the Australian cabinet table in the Morrison Government, together with the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister and the Treasurer and the Finance Minister to make sure that the issues of women’s safety and women’s economic security have a really clear and intense focus in the policy making and decision making of government. And so it is appropriate and important to have the senior office bearers of the government sitting down with all of those ministers who represent Australian women across the cabinet table, as well as other female ministers in our government. And that’s the whole purpose as to why it was it was established.


Sally Sara: What would you say to women, especially rural women, who are unhappy that Barnaby Joyce has been given this role?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I would say and of course, people have strong views about politics and politicians all the time. But I expect that Barnaby, in terms of his participation in that task force, will, like the other three men around that table, listen, engage thoughtfully and learn.


Sally Sara: On the issue of Trade Minister, China’s decision to go to the WTO with complaints against Australia. Is this retaliation?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look it’s for China to explain it’s motivations. Australia’s very confident in our anti-dumping system. We have a very transparent anti-dumping system where Australian business and industry make complaints if they see dumping of foreign products on the Australian market at subsidised prices or below cost activities to harm the operation of those Australian businesses and industry. And we go through a very thorough and transparent process in assessing the veracity of those claims before duties are ever imposed. And we’re confident that our system and those decisions in relation to things like railway wheels will stand up to scrutiny and that it will stand up to scrutiny far more than what we think are the appalling decisions that China made in relation to Australia’s barley industry and Australia’s wine industry, which in no way is subsidised by Australian governments to dump their products on international markets.


Sally Sara: Do you think this will increase tensions?


Simon Birmingham: We’ll certainly see yet more cases running through the World Trade Organisation. There as the independent umpire. That’s why Australia used those processes to challenge China’s decisions. And we will continue to call out what we think is inappropriate behaviour, conduct that is damaging to Australian business and unfair in its application to Australia.


Sally Sara: Is it provocative for China to take these move, this move on these particular products?


Simon Birmingham: I’d call it more petty than provocative, to be honest, Sally. As I said, we don’t think that China will find it has any sort of strong case in the action that it’s taking. Our systems and our processes are strong ones, are transparent ones, and stand in contrast to the type of approach that was used in relation to China’s decision against our wine and barley industries. And of course, let me re-emphasise Sally, as we have said time and time again, the Australian Government is willing to sit down and talk about these matters as well. And in a diplomatic context, it’s disappointing that Australia was not given advance notice of China’s decision to initiate this action. We certainly gave China advance notice of our decisions in relation to the wine challenge and the barley challenge that we’re taking to the WTO. We are sticking to follow those normal diplomatic protocols. And we would welcome the opportunity to have discussion because that’s the best way to work through difficult issues.


Sally Sara: Are you disappointed that China didn’t give advance warning?


Simon Birmingham: Yes, we are disappointed, I mean, that is the normal courtesies in a diplomatic context. It is a courtesy that Australia has continued to show in relation to decisions that we take. It’s disappointing that China did not show, as I understand it, that same courtesy. But and sadly, that doesn’t change our willingness to sit down and engage and engage like grown-ups and try to work through these issues. That is the best way for nations to be able to seek to overcome challenging and difficult times.


Sally Sara: Minister for ordinary Australians who are waking up and reading these stories in the paper today, why is it that wind towers, sinks and rail wheels have been targeted?


Simon Birmingham: Well, again, you have to you have to ask China there. I mean, these are probably-.


Sally Sara: What’s your suspicion?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, China’s production in relation to different steel products is quite voracious. It’s been challenged by many countries around the world. In fact, the Global Forum on Steel Production was initiated and is still operating disappointingly. China withdrew from cooperation with other countries who had concern about their production and trade practises in that regard.


Sally Sara: On another issue, the National Party has blindsided Liberals for a second day in a row with trying to scuttle the Murray-Darling Basin Plan just after Barnaby Joyce has returned to the Government. What’s your reaction to what the Nationals have been doing on the issue of water? Does it need to stop?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it does. It does need to stop in terms of attempts to change the laws as they apply in the Water Act and the operation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I fully respect the right of individual MPs and Senators to strongly represent their constituencies. And that’s what I’ve done as a South Australian senator ever since 2007 when I entered the Senate. And one of the first pieces of legislation I ever contributed to and spoke on was the passage of the Water Act by the Howard government. And since then, including a stint as the minister responsible for water policy, I’ve worked with colleagues right across basin communities to try to ensure the successful implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It’s something where passionately held views exist right across the Basin because the water system is the lifeblood not just of South Australia, but of so many river communities. And it’s why we have always sought to implement the Basin Plan in a way that respects those upstream communities as well and has tried to recover water through investment in infrastructure ahead of buybacks, because that’s the way we’ve been able to get water for the environment while increasing the productive capacity of river communities and protecting their ability to grow the food that our nation depends upon and exports to the world.


Sally Sara: Minister, these leaked talking points from National’s Damian Drum includes this comment that the science no longer supports South Australia needing fresh water. Is that true?


Simon Birmingham: No, of course, it’s not true and I mean, fresh water is essential for any civilisation is certainly essential for any city, any state, any population centre. But I assume the points we’re probably trying to say that additional water flows are additional water recovery were not essential. Now, we’ve seen some many thousands of billions litres of water entitlements recovered to date that are now held by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and crucially, are used in watering and delivering water to key environmental assets right across the Murray-Darling Basin, not just the Coorong in the Lower Lakes in SA, but Ramsar listed sites right across the system.


Sally Sara: Are you disappointed by the way the Nats have handled this issue? Did they give you any warning?


Simon Birmingham: Not a lot of warning I found out about it on the morning that it was due to happen, which of course that’s disappointing, but the government’s policy position remains very clear. And the thing about the Liberal Party and the National Party is that we do grant our backbenchers a bit more licence, a bit more freedom than the Labor Party to speak out on issues. We managed to have these differences from time to time-


Sally Sara: But this is something beyond what we’ve seen before, isn’t it, though, Minister? Or is this something you’ll accept to happen again and again?


Simon Birmingham: I’ve seen members cross the floor before and I expect I’ll see members cross the floor again. But I also expect the government will remain resolute in its position of support for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. That’s certainly been the topic of discussions that I’ve had with the prime minister this week and in all of my South Australian liberal colleagues and joined with me in writing very clearly to the prime minister outlining our position. And I know that the government retains that policy position.


Sally Sara: Water is a lifeblood as a South Australian. Were you angry by some of the comments that the Nationals made?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I certainly was deeply disappointed by some, but I do respect Sally, as I said, the right of individual members and senators to passionately argue the concerns of their constituents. That’s what they’re sent to Canberra to do. Now, I disagree with them in terms of what those concerns mean and how the best addressed in a policy context. But the fact that upstream communities have different concerns to downstream communities is not new and it will probably never change. But the best way they’re resolved is through good policy. And I think the application of the plan in the way that current Water Minister Keith Pitt and previous water minister David Littleproud have done, working with National Party, Liberal Party and the Labor Party, water ministers at the state and territory level has been a strong and sensible approach and I’m sure will remain committed to that.


Sally Sara: Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining us again on RN Breakfast.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sally. My pleasure.