Karl Stefanovic: In a major blow to Chinese Australia relations, Beijing has slapped a brutal 80 per cent import tariff on all Aussie barley, just hours after agreeing to an independent review into the origins of COVID-19. Joining me now is Victorian barley farmer Andrew Wiedemann and Trade Minister Simon Birmingham. Thank you for your time, gentlemen. Appreciate it. To you first of all, Andrew — what is your reaction and how is this going to affect farmers?
Andrew Wiedemann: Well look, this morning, we’ve woken up to this news, and Australia wide, farmers will be quite guttered by the news that we’ve lost our trade between Australia and China in barley. It’s been something that the industry’s been working on trying to respond to China over the last 18 months, and it’s now come to fruition that they’ve imposed this 80 per cent tariff essentially on Australian barley which just stops the trade completely.
Karl Stefanovic: It wasn’t a surprise, but what impact will it have?
Andrew Wiedemann: Well look, it will take away a market that has been primarily our largest market for the last decade or more. We’ve been sort of servicing China since 40 years ago, with malt barley, and this morning it takes more than half a billion dollars out of the economy of Australia on a 12 million tonne crop that we were hoping to grow with the current soil profile the way it’s looking.
So, yeah, it’s a really bitter pill to swallow, that farmers and the economy itself after the COVID issue, we were hoping, was going to lift Australia up again and keep it moving. And so, yes, it’s a real dent in our economy and it will have a big impact.
Karl Stefanovic: Simon, how were you told? Did your Chinese counterpart get on the phone to you, do the right thing?
Simon Birmingham: No, Karl. Look, we learnt through the official notification that the Chinese Government made. It’s a deeply disappointing decision and particularly for Australian barley farmers. Frankly, it will be disappointing for many Chinese breweries and other consumers in China of Australian barley. They’ll pay a price through higher barley prices there, or through substandard product they’ll get from other countries and we will have to work very hard with our barley producers here in Australia to find new market opportunities for them, particularly over the coming months, before we get to harvest time this year. And importantly, we will be pursuing those with a range of different partners, including Indonesia, where we have some 500,000 tonnes of feed grains coming online on 5 July in terms of tariff-free access there. But we’ve got to look and will for other markets too.
Karl Stefanovic: You must feel partly responsible for this, do you?
Simon Birmingham: Look, Karl, this is a decision that reflects on the Chinese Government. We’ll look at the details of it carefully and closely. It is a disappointing decision- deeply disappointing, as I said. We’ll analyse all the details of it thoroughly and reserve all our rights in terms of how we appeal, how we respond. China can, at any stage, choose to lift these duties, and we’ll certainly continue to try to engage with them to convince them that they should do so.
Karl Stefanovic: Andrew, how much of this do you think had to do with our stand on COVID-19 and the independent inquiry?
Andrew Wiedemann: Well, look, we can draw parallels to that, but this investigation has been ongoing for at least 18 months. So the timing of it’s actually just coincided with the current situation, so we just have to rebuild …
Karl Stefanovic: It didn’t help though?
Andrew Wiedemann: No, look, it didn’t. I mean, it’s just an unfortunate situation that we’re in at the moment and China, you know, we really appreciate the business that we’ve had with China and we want to rebuild that. We’ve got a lot of great friends. We’ve spent a lot of money and investment out of Australia in China. We’ve been building up barley varieties suitable for the brewing systems they have in their country, and we need to go back to our core strengths and look at how we can rebuild that confidence.
And I believe working with Simon, his team, I mean, they were working till all hours this morning. You know, I’m really confident that we’ve got the right team to try and respond, but the reality is we have to get China to come to the table, and deal with us in a real businesslike approach.
Karl Stefanovic: Okay. Simon, just a couple of matters with you, if I can, too. Xi Jinping overnight said that he supported a review when COVID, the pandemic is under control, a review. Is that supporting an independent inquiry, or is it something entirely different?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the motion that went through the World Health Assembly overnight, which our Government welcomes the cooperation and support from countries right around the world, does put in place the framework for an independent investigation and inquiry, a review into the origins and the handling of COVID-19.
Now, the details of that of course will all be worked through consistent with the motion that’s been passed. But this is an important step in recognising that the damage, the cost of COVID-19 has been enormous across countries right around the world, the damage through loss of life, the damage to health systems, and of course, the damage to economies and we’ve got to make sure we learn the lessons from that and in learning those lessons, ensure we avoid a repeat in the future.
Karl Stefanovic: Okay. They’ve also simultaneously agreed to pay more for our iron ore. Big meeting. Will that lead us out of this economic gloom, do you think?
Simon Birmingham: Look, Australia will continue to engage with all of our different partners around the world whether it’s in terms of working on those health responses, economic issues, and indeed we hope to continue to have a strong trading relationship with China. They are a large economy within our region and we have mutually beneficial trading relationship …
Karl Stefanovic: But iron ore, Simon, iron ore going from $55 a tonne to $95. It’s got to help our bottom line, doesn’t it?
Simon Birmingham: Look, iron ore prices can vary significantly over a period of time. Of course, that is good news for Australian producers and that means it’s good news for the budgets of Western Australia, indeed, it will have a positive impact on us as well.
Karl Stefanovic: Okay. Finally, if we don’t open our borders soon, the tourism sector will face an $80 billion wipe-out. What are you going to do to get these borders open?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we want to see states and territories continue to implement the road map of reopening, so that means getting pubs and restaurants and other parts of the economy properly open, acknowledging social distancing requirements that need to be met, and then, those states who’ve got border controls in place, assuming we’ve continued to see very low rates of transmission of COVID-19, ought to be looking at opening up their borders, and I’ll continue to have those conversations with my state and territory counterparts; I’m sure other members of the government do. Health comes first but we’ve also got to get people back into jobs, the economy flowing and tourism employs one in 13 Australians and supports those jobs and so we need people moving across this country again as and when it’s safe to do so.
Karl Stefanovic: Good luck with those negotiations with the states and good luck with your continuing negotiations with China. I know that Andrew will appreciate it if you have a change of heart. Thank you, Andrew as well. Appreciate it on a tough day.
Andrew Wiedemann: Morning. Thank you. All the best.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Karl.