• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: China-Australia relationship, Australian barley and beef bans, Black Lives Matter protests.
08 June 2020

Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham is the Trade and Tourism Minister. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Fran. Good to be with you.

Fran Kelly: The Chinese Government advice, warning of a significant increase in racist attacks — you say it’s got no basis in fact. What have you done to satisfy yourself that Chinese people here, Asian people here, are not being targeted due to this pandemic?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, Australia’s a country where our leaders and our communities condemn racism and where we have very clear processes in place if violent attacks occur for people to report them; our authorities are thorough in investigating them; and of course we’re a country that has zero tolerance in that regards — not zero incidents, I understand that. But I think the idea that Australia, in any way, is an unsafe destination for visitors to come to is one that just does not stand up to scrutiny.

Fran Kelly: Well, at the start of this pandemic the Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Officer were driven to caution Australians, all of us, against racist behavior targeting Asians. A recent survey has clocked 400 racist attacks by- against Asian-Australians since the beginning of April. Now, you know, China is over-egging this for sure but there are some Asian-Australians, no doubt, who are feeling less comfortable and less safe perhaps than they were some months ago. Do you accept that?

Simon Birmingham: I do accept that, Fran, and it’s a responsibility for all of us to work hard in terms of ensuring that our success as a multicultural nation continues and we stand out amongst the world. And that’s where it frustrates me and disappoints me in relation to China’s statement, that in relative terms there is no doubt that Australia is one of the most inclusive countries, one of the most tolerant countries, and one of the countries in which people of all races, all faiths, all backgrounds, all sexualities, all forms of diversity are safe, are included, are respected and that, as a country, we make sure and we pride ourselves on the success we’ve had in terms of those sorts of reforms in recent years and the contribution people of all backgrounds have made to our national success.

Fran Kelly: This is nevertheless a very significant step by China, isn’t it? To warn people against traveling here on holidays. I mean, we saw what happened, you know, after the restrictions were placed on Australian barley and beef when it came to trade, you know, Beijing followed through on its bellicose language. Given the sad state of Australian tourism we can’t afford a travel boycott by one of our major sources of visitors, can we? They bring in something- I think it’s like $12.5 billion a year. What can we do about this?

Simon Birmingham: Well, China has made   these types of warnings previously, similarly based on incorrect or exaggerated fact and assessments. So, only time will tell as to whether this statement has any actual impact on our tourism industry. Clearly right now we’re not accepting tourists from any part of the world, and it will be some time until that occurs. But when we do reopen our borders; and we’ll be emphasising to the world, in part, Australia’s success in the management of COVID; the safety of Australia, not just in terms of people’s activities and the respect that others have for them, but the safety of Australia as a country that demonstrated our capacity to manage a global pandemic so well to keep our citizens and all other visitors to our country — including the many, many thousands of Chinese nationals who are still in Australia studying, working, undertaking activities here — who have also been kept safe as a result of our management of COVID.

Fran Kelly: Yeah, you’re right, the borders are closed so this doesn’t matter now, but you don’t want this attitude to take hold. Do you think this is a deliberate effort by China aimed at doing more damage, diplomatic damage to Australia? Is this more about the state of the diplomatic relationship?

Simon Birmingham: It isn’t helpful for me to try to ascribe motivations to others, particularly to other countries and this is an unhelpful statement, no doubt about that. We believe it’s an incorrect statement, and we will continue to make sure that in all that our promotional activity, including in China, we emphasise not just the amazing experiences that Australia has on offer, but all of the other attributes of safety, inclusion, tolerance that Australia has, and to make sure that that’s well understood by potential travelers and visitors — where they come in for tourism purposes, study purposes or otherwise.

Fran Kelly: Minister, three weeks ago your Chinese counterpart wouldn’t take your call, your phone call to discuss the beef and barley ban — you told us that. Have you spoken since? Or are things still in the deepfreeze?

Simon Birmingham: No, unfortunately our requests for a discussion have, so far, been met negatively –that’s disappointing. As I’ve emphasised publicly, time and time again, Australia is open to have difficult discussions on matters upon which we may disagree with other countries but will do so respectfully, thoughtfully, calmly. And it’s unfortunate when other nations won’t respond or reciprocate in kind.

Fran Kelly: Okay. We’ve seen retaliation from China, as I mentioned with the barley ban, the beef ban. On Friday the Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced the biggest changes to the foreign investment rules in this country in years — tougher tests will be applied to foreign investment in sensitive assets like defence, energy, telecommunications, data storage. The Government denies it’s country specific, but why not just admit that this is aimed in large part at China, China investment?

Simon Birmingham: Well, because these reforms do apply equally to every single nation. I wrote last Thursday, prior to the public announcement to all of our investment partners, writing in identical terms, informing them that the announcement that was to come. And the United States — as our number one investment partner — received exactly the same notification as did any other country [indistinct]…

Fran Kelly: Yes but they’re also an ally of ours. They’re unlikely to trigger any national security concerns therefore, aren’t they?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, that will be an assessment made in the national interest at the time that any potential inquiry, or acquirer, or investor of Australian assets puts their application forward. These reforms are about making sure that our foreign investment regime is fit for purpose for the era in which we live, and where we’ve seen the rapid escalation of technology impacting the way in which businesses work and operate, which presents new and distinct challenges in terms of whether we can have confidence around the national interest being preserved in terms of our national security at all times for sensitive assets and potentially vital pieces of infrastructure. And that’s, that’s why we’ve taken this step to make sure that the Treasurer in the future and the Foreign Investment Review Board in future have the capacity to take a closer look at any of those sensitive topics. That doesn’t mean that we say no, but it does mean that it is subject to a little bit more scrutiny.

Fran Kelly: You’re listening to RN Breakfast, our guest is Simon Birmingham, he’s the Federal Minister for Tourism and Trade. To those closed borders, the tensions around the fact that some of our borders remain closed due to the pandemic. You’ve been saying for weeks now they should be opened up. Have you been able to quantify the damage that’s being done because of the border closures?

Simon Birmingham: It’s hard to quantify. Obviously my comments relate to interstate travel restrictions very clearly. The international travel restrictions remain a very important part of our safety mechanism in ensuring the spread of COVID doesn’t pick up in Australia. But across Australia and across each Australian state we’ve seen amazing success that probably goes beyond the expectations of a couple of months ago in suppressing the spread of COVID. States are rightly working through a process of reopening their internal activities — getting people back into pubs and restaurants, back out across the community and sporting activities and the like and that is to be warmly welcomed, and so far they’ve done so without there being any increase in the spread of COVID that’s been picked up in statistics. And we will work hard with the states to maintain support for them in keeping up record levels of testing, record levels of tracing, and isolating in relation to anybody where there is a risk; to maintain intense communications on people to keep up the hand hygiene and to make sure that if you’ve got a cough or a sniffle, you do get tested and you do stay away from work and other areas where you could spread anything. And if we do all of that and that continues to be successful, then I hope we’ll also see the interstate travel borders come down really quickly, because that can enable once more people to travel more freely, and that will give securer jobs across our hotels, our airlines, and the other aspects of tourism.

Fran Kelly: Okay. Okay. Thousands of protesters took to the streets on the weekend in this country for the Black Lives Matter marches here. We don’t know if this is going to trigger is a spike in infections, we hope it doesn’t. What was your view of those protests? And do you share the view of your colleague, Mathias Cormann, who called these protests- protesters reckless and irresponsible?

Simon Birmingham: I think the timing was incredibly unfortunate for these protests. We talked about…

Fran Kelly: Yes. But the timing this sparked by events outside their hands. I mean, it’s a global- this is a global movement in response to what happened in the US and what happens here to Indigenous Australians.

Simon Birmingham: It was, Fran, that’s why I called it unfortunate. The timing was unfortunate, and I accept the events that occurred in the United States were not within the control of any of the protest organisers or the like. Nonetheless, there could have been other ways of trying to create the type of movement and symbolism that the protesters sought without having to resort to mass gatherings. We all managed to come out and stand at the end of our driveways on Anzac Day, for example. There are different ways of activating mass community sentiment without in fact requiring mass gathering. But look, I think…

Fran Kelly: Reckless and irresponsible, do you share that sentiment of Mathias Cormann’s?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think for the protest organisers encouraging that sort of gathering is certainly showing a lack of regard for the other Australians who have been making such enormous sacrifices. But I understand the sentiments of the protesters — it doesn’t go in any way to their desire to promote the need for continued effort, ever increasing vigilance in terms of ensuring the simply respect for all Australians and all peoples around the world, regardless of their background. That’s where we started this interview and it’s important that we continue to demonstrate that respect and also note that Australia is a free country where those types of gatherings tend to take place — in other nations, people would be severely penalised for.

Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Fran.

Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham is the Federal Trade and Tourism Minister.