• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Australian trading relationship with China.
18 May 2020

Allison Langdon: Alright. Well it is a sign of just how bad our relations with Beijing have sunk. Minister for Trade, Simon Birmingham’s utter frustration with his Chinese counterpart who’s refusing to return his calls.

Karl Stefanovic: Yes, you couldn’t make it up, could you? These are two of the most important people in our respective countries right now not talking. And Simon Birmingham joins us now. Simon, good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Karl. Great to be with you.

Karl Stefanovic: It was a mighty dummy spit, was it? What are you going to do to sort it out? Have you spoken to your counterpart?

Simon Birmingham: Well a call hasn’t been scheduled as yet. Look, Australia is a country where we are happy to have thoughtful, constructive dialogue with any of our partners around the world, even on topics that we might disagree over. It is not a reflection on us. We are willing to step up to the table, have those discussions, and we hope that others will respond in kind.

Allison Langdon: So, is it a dummy spit?

Simon Birmingham: Oh, I certainly wouldn’t use that sort of language. I just hope that we can have the engagement. But in the meantime, we’re certainly getting on through our embassies, through our officials. We have, in terms of Australia’s barley industry, put in a response that is comprehensive, full of the economic and market analysis required to refute any suggestion that our barley farmers are anything but the most competitive and productive in the world.

Karl Stefanovic: But the issue is, China’s Foreign Ministry has said the country is committed to a trade deal between the two countries. It appears as though he’s talking, just not to you.

Simon Birmingham: Look I noticed those newspaper reports and I do welcome and acknowledge those comments from China’s Foreign Ministry that yes, indeed, the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement has seen phenomenal growth in terms of our trading relationship, and that’s been of benefit to both Australia and to China, and it’s something that we are committed to continuing to see foster people to people and business to business ties in the future. Governments will have disagreements from time to time. The Australian Government and the Chinese Government have very different systems of government, our nations have different values that underpin us, but we ought to be able to work through those differences, and from Australia’s perspective, we’re always willing to sit down and talk about the differences.

Allison Langdon: You just need them to come to the table.

Simon Birmingham: Well, it takes two to tango in that sense.

Allison Langdon: Well, 62 countries have now backed your call for an independent inquiry. Are you confident it will be endorsed?

Simon Birmingham: We do welcome the extent of global support for an independent inquiry into COVID-19. We’re pleased to be standing alongside the European Union and so many other nations in having a comprehensive look at the origins, the handling of this worldwide. Because hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives and died, millions of people have lost their jobs, billions of lives have been disrupted. The least we can do as a globe is work together to make sure we learn the lessons from it, and try to avoid a repeat of it again in the future.

Karl Stefanovic: Did you instigate that? Did you go out and actively pursue that diplomatically, this independent inquiry?

Simon Birmingham: Well the Australian Government has been having discussions right around the world with our counterparts, and indeed, of course, many other countries were thinking about the need for this type of investigation. It’s common sense, it’s obvious, and it’s really the least that the world can do. And I hope that
everyone will ultimately agree to it and participate in it, because that way, we can all be better off in the future. There isn’t a country untouched by COVID-19.

Karl Stefanovic: Simon, China is going to think that if you have instigated it, that it’s provocative.

Simon Birmingham: Well the Australian Government has worked with partners around the world, and we want to work with China on this topic as well. Chinese lives have been lost. The Chinese economy has suffered, by all reports, its first economic downturn in more than 40 years. So it’s in China’s interest as it’s in Australia’s interest, and it’s in the world’s interest to understand how we avoid a repeat of this again in the future, and to learn the lessons from it.

Allison Langdon: Well there is every indication China will hit back with import duties. And if that happens, I mean, you will have played a significant role. Will you compensate farmers?

Simon Birmingham: Australia’s farmers are some of the most competitive in the world. We’re continuing to work hard to make sure that every bit of evidence is provided so that Beijing makes an evidence-based decision, in which case it should not be applying any duties to our farmers. But we also continue to provide ever more market access opportunities for them. On the 5th of July, our new free trade agreement with Indonesia will come into place, which provides for 500,000 tonnes of additional feed grain, to get into Indonesia duty free, and that number grows every year. It comes off the back of our trade deals with Japan, Korea, the TPP, which gives access to Vietnam, to Canada, to Mexico, and our negotiations we’re pursuing with the EU, the UK. So our approach is to give our farmers and all our exporters maximum choices in terms of with whom they trade and where they can sell.

Allison Langdon: But there’s no talk of compensating them at this point?

Simon Birmingham: Our farmers are great, not only farmers, but also business people in their trade and engagement in the world. We back them to be able to get out there and sell their product, and they do so because it’s great quality, wonderful productivity, and of course they price it competitively.

Karl Stefanovic: Thanks, Simon. Appreciate your time and good luck with it.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys. Cheers, thank you very much.