• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: China investigation into Australian barley imports; Australian meat processors licence suspensions.
13 May 2020

Karl Stefanovic: Australia and China are on the brink of an all-out trade war, aren’t they, after Beijing slapped a ban on our beef imports, while it’s feared our dairy, seafood, and wine industries could be next.

Allison Langdon: There’s also the threat of tariffs on our barley, and Simon Birmingham is the Federal Trade Minister and he joins us now from Canberra. Simon, thanks for your time this morning. Will the intimidation work?

Simon Birmingham: Well great to be with you guys. We were very clear a few weeks ago when China’s Ambassador made some intemperate remarks that- we don’t respond to any threats of economic coercion. Now, China’s clear publicly and privately at present, that these issues in relation to a barley investigation around the alleged dumping of barley and issues around irregularities in the labelling of beef, they say are 12 to 18 month processes that have been ongoing and unrelated. And so we will respond to that in a thorough, calm, methodical way as we should in the interests of our farmers and exporters

Karl Stefanovic: You know that farmers and exporters haven’t done anything wrong?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, our farmers and exporters certainly haven’t done anything wrong. There might be a few small instances of labelling irregularities …

Karl Stefanovic: So Simon, what could it be then? Magically?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we do know these processes, as I say, have been going on for a while. And in the case of barley, we knew that it was always coming to a head over these couple of weeks. It was an 18-month investigation, it had a deadline, it was going to come to a head. Now we’ve been given a draft report, and we’re going to respond to that quite definitively in terms of providing clear evidence that demonstrates that our barley producers aren’t subsidised, don’t dump product, they just happen to be some of the most competitive, productive and efficient in the world in producing high quality barley.

Allison Langdon: Are you are seriously saying what’s happening with barley, beef, potentially dairy, wine and seafood is not linked to our Australian Government saying we want an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19?

Simon Birmingham: Well China is saying it’s not, and we have to respond in the best interests of our farmers and exporters by putting strong cases …

Allison Langdon: And do you believe China?

Simon Birmingham: … into those processes. These are administrative processes that China is running, the equivalent of our anti-dumping commission. And we’ve got to engage with that. We’ve got to engage with that professionally, and thoroughly, and that’s exactly what we will do as a government, working day and night to do so.

Karl Stefanovic: Even the Chinese beer manufacturer Tsingtao, which is a great beer, they’ve said they’ve done nothing wrong. I mean, their own people are saying they’ve done nothing wrong.

Simon Birmingham: Well, there is that support from Chinese customers and consumers. And we do have to remember that this is always a two-party relationship, government to government, but also business to consumer, seller to buyer. And so there is support there by many of the Chinese businesses who are consumers of Australian product, and indeed of Chinese consumers …

Karl Stefanovic: So have you reached out to your counterpart yet? Have you reached out- you said that you’re going to diplomatically reach out. What you are doing behind the scenes and in front of the scenes to reach out to resolve this diplomatically?

Simon Birmingham: So I’ve asked for a discussion with my counterpart, that hasn’t happened as yet, but we’ll keep those lines of communication open. They will …

Karl Stefanovic: Why not?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve asked, Karl, I can’t tell you why it hasn’t happened. I am open, ready and willing to meet and discuss whenever we can. We’ll engage in these matters respectfully, but we are also working hard to compile the strongest case of evidence in support of our farmers and to make sure that is presented so that there is no grounds upon which Beijing could possibly think that in the case of barley, they are dumping product, and in the case of the beef issues, that they have clear evidence that the processes and procedures are in place to have confidence that all of those customs, quarantine and labelling requirements will and are being adhered to.

Allison Langdon: So Australia has talked really tough on this. Does this now mean that behind the scenes we have to suck up? Because I mean, at the end of the day, this can be taking place, but we are talking about Aussie jobs, workers, our farmers who are caught in the middle?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve got to be a country that stands to defend our policies, strong to our values, and in defence of them, but of course engage respectfully. And that’s the approach that I take, that Scott Morrison takes, and our senior ministers all take. And we don’t compromise when it comes to policies or values. We don’t compromise when it comes to the defence of the nation’s security, or indeed to the public health interests of the country. But we want to have as strong a partnership as possible with China as we want to have with any other country within our region or across the world.

Karl Stefanovic: So you’ve asked for a meeting? Let me get this right as we go to air this morning. This is obviously, diplomatically, this is a very delicate situation. You are, and we’re not even in the fault, you’ve asked for a meeting, you’ve said let’s talk about this. And you’ve got no response from China?

Simon Birmingham: Well at this stage, we don’t have one scheduled. But I am hopeful that we will have those direct discussions. Certainly we will pursue so at embassy level, and well and truly at officials level, noting that China tells us that these are administrative processes, handled by agencies that are the equivalent of Australia’s anti-dumping commission, so we are engaging very thoroughly at that administrative level too.

Allison Langdon: And if they don’t respond?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, we will, as I say, put forward the best possible case for Australia. I can’t make any other country respond. I can only control the way in which we approach these issues as an Australian Government, and we approach our positions from a position of policy strength and certainty, defence of our values and interests, but respectful engagement with partners, whether it be China or any other country.

Allison Langdon: Well, I mean, it’s a tactic they’ve used before, no doubt it’s a tactic they’ll use again. Perhaps we need to be less reliant on China as a market?

Karl Stefanovic: Well are there any alternatives? I mean, can we pursue that? I mean, if we- our beef, we can’t stockpile obviously, that’s a real problem. But are there emerging markets? Are there places where we can send our stuff so we don’t rely on it?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, we had our last lot of monthly trade statistics out just last week and they showed that for the month of March, despite the COVID-19 impact across the world, Australian exporters recorded our largest ever trade surplus. And that was fuelled in part by growth in exports to markets like Japan, and the Republic of Korea, the United States, Vietnam, United Kingdom. We actually are seeing strong growth with the number of markets, including many of those markets where our government has put in free trade agreements. And we’ve got another of those free trade agreements coming into effect with Indonesia on 5 July. So that’s good news in terms of providing our exporters more choice, more opportunities.

Allison Langdon: Okay, Minister, thanks for joining us this morning. We appreciate it.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys.