• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Australian citizen detained in China; Australia-China relationship, state and territory borders.
01 September 2020

Fran Kelly: Australia’s fractured relationship with China has just got worse. Australian journalist, Cheng Lei, has been arrested in China and could be detained for up to six months without access to legal aid. Beijing has fired another volley too on the trade front, opening a second investigation into Australia’s lucrative Australian wine export business to China. Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham, joins us in our Parliament House studios now. Simon Birmingham, welcome back to Breakfast.

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

Fran Kelly: The government was- our Government was notified on 14 August I understand, that Cheng Lei had been arrested. Has the Government been told why she’s been detained?

Simon Birmingham: Fran, I don’t have any details that I can provide on that matter. We did have consular access with Ms Cheng on 27 August through virtual and video means. We’ve been obviously in contact with her family who, as you would have seen, have issued a statement acknowledging that they are doing everything they can to support Cheng Lei and her welfare, that they acknowledge the process that is underway, and they’ve asked for both privacy and restraint in relation to commentary on these matters. And we will continue to do what we can to support Ms Cheng and her family through what must be difficult and trying times.

Fran Kelly: Absolutely. Australian officials have had consular access to her as you mentioned by video link. How is she? And do we know where she’s been detained?

Simon Birmingham: Fran, I understand that we have some of those details. As I said, we though, will be restrained in what we say publicly out of acknowledgement for the process, the family, and we simply hope that these matters can be dealt with according to proper process and as expeditiously as possible.

Fran Kelly: What is proper process? Because the ABC reports that Cheng Lei has not been charged, she’s being held under what’s known as residential surveillance which means you can be detained and questioned for up to six months with no access to lawyers. Is that acceptable to the Australian Government? That such an arbitrary attention can occur to- detention can occurred on Australian citizens?

Simon Birmingham: China’s systems are obviously very, very different to our systems, and we have to acknowledge that. And those risks that Australians face when they travel overseas – a risk that we often point out in relation to many, many different countries that are different compared with if they were operating in Australia. We don’t see the same legal system, but ultimately there is a process there, we will provide whatever assistance we can. The family, I know, are working to try to provide legal advice and assistance as well, and we will give them whatever support we can as well.

Fran Kelly: Do you think Cheng Lei is a pawn in a worsening relationship between China and Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Nothing would be particularly helpful for me to try to draw that link, Fran. Cheng Lei is an Australian, a journalist who has been working in China for some period of time. I’ve actually met her and been interviewed by her while overseas myself. I feel for her family very much at this point in time, and it’s why we will do what we can to assist her, as we would and have any Australian in these sorts of circumstances. There is a long history of different consular cases and points of difficulty that we’ve seen over the years, and so we shouldn’t see this as a first or a one off. But obviously it’s concerning for her family, and we will provide the assistance that we can.

Fran Kelly: It must be very distressing, but she’s not the only Australian detained. Australian writer, Dr Yang Hengjun has been held now for more than 500 days on charges of suspected espionage – Australia strongly objected to that. You know, that was interpreted at the time as perhaps in response to Australia’s tough foreign interference laws. We have this arrest now in the wake- or this detention in the wake of China’s objections over Australia’s call for the international investigation into COVID. I mean, what’s the status of Dr Yang Hengjun? Has there been any movement there?

Simon Birmingham: Fran, I’m not aware of any recent movement in terms of progress of his case. I do understand that there was some recent consular access there. This is a long and ongoing matter, as you identify, and in all of these cases we would wish that they could be resolved faster than they are. But it’s not a system that we control; it is a system where we can but provide the assistance that’s available to us under those consular protocols when we can, and we continue to try to do that as much as we can.

As I said before, we do have to acknowledge that, yes, these cases are recent cases, but you can stretch back over many, many years, decades even, and of course find a continuum of occasional difficult consular cases that come along. That each of them are concerning in their own different way for the families and the individuals involved, and it’s why we do try to provide the assistance. But also, while we do make sure that the warnings are there as well for Australians that when they go overseas the systems they will encounter overseas are not Australian systems and do not come with the same types of safeguards that Australian systems provide to people within Australia.

Fran Kelly: In the past though, it is the case that Australians who have been detained, you know, I remember a number of prime ministers raising these detentions with their Chinese counterpart. Now there is no communication it would seem, between certainly our Prime Minister and President Xi, or minister to minister – you still haven’t been able to get your phone calls answered I understand. David Littleproud told us he hasn’t. Does this leave the Australian citizens in a much worse position? Much more vulnerable?

Simon Birmingham: Well, each of the last two years Prime Minister Scott Morrison has had his annual dialogue with Premier Li – that’s happened in the margins of the various ASEAN summits. And so, there remains some of those levels of dialogue at which some of these types of issues are explored.

You’re right though, it’s at the Trade Minister level this year China has been unwilling to schedule a phone call or a discussion with my counterpart – I’m disappointed by that. My view is that mature countries should be able to put their differences aside to then talk about the issues where they can work together, to deal if they can with any differences. In Australia’s case we are willing to have that mature upfront dialogue at a minister to minister level, we, we think that that is the best way to handle these things, and I continue to work to extend that offer to work to our Chinese counterparts to reciprocate.

Fran Kelly: How do you do that, Minister? How actively? Because I note the comments of Australia’s first Ambassador to China, Stephen Fitzgerald, in the paper today. He says: relations will continue to fracture until the Government can find a way to rebuild the old network of personal ties. He says quote: this is very serious, you have to be able to pick up the phone and talk to your opposite number at the very highest level. What are you doing? What actual efforts are you doing to open a direct channel.

Simon Birmingham: Fran, we’ve made numerous approaches and requests. We’ve done that whether it be in writing, whether that be through representations of our embassy officials, whether it be through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade engagement with their counterparts – these are all the types of levers and requests that said that you would normally use to facilitate these types of calls.

In the ordinary course of events over recent years, I also would have had opportunities to informally engage with that with my counterpart at the various regional and multilateral trade discussions that we would commonly find each of us at – obviously, that’s a bit harder in in this year when when nobody’s travelling, and so we are simply working through those official channels where we can.

Fran Kelly: The arrest of Cheng Lei is obviously a real serious escalation in the tensions, but the trade relationship has showed signs of strain for a while now. China’s already punishing Australia beef and barley -we’ve discussed that with you before here on the program – and now it’s launched this second investigation into wine exports which are worth more than a billion dollars a year to Australian producers. It’s accused Australia of subsidies; illegal subsidies. It submitted a list of 40 separate farm and rural assistance programs it says are subsidising wine in breach of the Free Trade Agreement. They include research programs, concessional loans schemes, the regional jobs fund, even Landcare is mentioned. Under World Trade rules and under our Free Trade Agreement are these schemes in this list legal? Or illegal?

Simon Birmingham: These sorts of programs are well within any of the World Trade Organization parameters.

Fran Kelly: All of them? If we had a look at the list they’re all aboveboard?

Simon Birmingham: Fran, I’m quite confident that the way in which the Australian Government and state and territory governments provide support for research and development, for environmental restoration, and for regional growth that these are not trade distorting subsidies. All of the analysis shows that Australia is one of the lowest subsidising nations in the world when it comes to support provided to any of our agricultural industries. In fact we usually come in about second lowest rivalry with New Zealand for, for that position, and that’s why we argue so hard through WTO for the elimination globally of different forms of agricultural subsidies because we do not provide that sort of trade distorting, or export distorting subsidies. And that’s why we will defend these claims very, very rigorously for our wine industry.

Fran Kelly: And Minister, you’re also Minister of Tourism – the border closures are obviously affecting that. The Prime Minister wants the states and territories to commit to a national plan to reopen their borders in a coordinated fashion, but here’s the response from Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, yesterday.


Annastacia Palaszczuk: Queensland will continue to have our borders closed to keep Queenslanders safe. I’m not going to be moved on this. So the Federal Government can throw whoever they wanted at that, we can have Clive Palmer as well, but I’m not going to be moved because fundamentally the health of Queenslanders is my number one concern.

[End of excerpt]

Fran Kelly: Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, no doubt emboldened by the 80 per cent support in the Newspoll for a tough stand on borders. So she says the Commonwealth can throw whatever they want at it. Why doesn’t the Commonwealth use the Biosecurity Act to manage the movement of people around the country? Because it also has constitutional powers to regulate trade and commerce between the states. Why hasn’t the Government done that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, and indeed in relation to Victoria we’ve been very supportive of measures to, to ensure that we quarantine Victoria from the rest of the nation to, to stop the spread there of COVID-19. What I would urge the state and territory leaders to do is to not be closed minded, to not shut down their thinking, but instead to engage in an evidence based approach of looking at how hotspots can be used as a means to facilitate greater movement of people across Australia without jeopardising health outcomes – this is something other countries have successfully done. We are working through Commonwealth health officials in developing these hotspots approaches and I find it incredibly disappointing that a Premier like Annastacia Palaszczuk would be so closed-minded to even looking at the evidence and rule it out before she has seen it.

What that is doing is jeopardising jobs, livelihoods and ultimately lives across different states as we are seeing many, many thousands of jobs lost and they will continue to be lost if we have this approach where state and territory leaders in some cases simply maintain border closures indefinitely with a blanket approach rather than listening to the evidence, and working constructively as they should to develop a hotspot definition that can give greater confidence and save jobs and livelihoods of fellow Australians.

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

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Fran, my pleasure.

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