Topics: Australia-China trade relations; Tourism Australia domestic campaign; Borders; ICAC

13 October 2020

Fran Kelly: Well relations with China and the Australian economy along the way may have suffered another hammer blow with unconfirmed reports that Beijing has suspended lucrative imports of Australian coal. Several news agencies are reporting that state owned steel mills and power plants have been ordered to stop using Australian coking and thermal coal, while ports have been told not to offload shipments. Back here at home, Tourism Australia is launching a new drive to encourage us to holiday interstate once the domestic borders reopen, to try and save those countless travel businesses hanging on by a thread.

Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Tourism and Trade. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

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

Fran Kelly: Can we go to this coal story first? Have you been able to confirm the status of coal exports to China? Has Australian coal been banned by state owned energy providers and steel makers?

Simon Birmingham: We don’t have evidence to verify those reports, Fran. I have seen the reports and we have certainly been in touch with the Australian industry and we have also been working to seek a response from Chinese authorities in relation to the accusations that have been made publicly. Australia remains an important supplier of energy resources to many countries across our region, and we certainly seek to continue to do so in a reliable manner.

Fran Kelly: Okay. Well you say you’ve been in touch with Australian industry, you’ve asked questions of China. Have you tried calling your Chinese counterpart? Is there any point? Are they taking your call yet?

Simon Birmingham: Well Fran, it’s well known that we have, on multiple occasions, this year, and sought to have ministerial dialogue with China and that they’ve not been willing to reciprocate. Our door remains wide open to do that. And we continue to reinforce our invitation to have that dialogue. In the meantime, though, where we operate through the normal diplomatic channels, where we can, and as I say, work with the Australian industry as well. This is not the first time in recent years that we’ve seen some possible disruption to the timing and sequencing of exports of coal in particular into China. There have been patterns of things that look like there are some informal quota systems, in otherwise operating. But we take the report seriously enough, certainly to try to seek some assurances from Chinese authorities that they are honoring the terms of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement and their WTO obligations.

Fran Kelly: You’re right. It’s not the first time. Coal was the subject of a go-slow in Chinese ports last year, too. But what are the exporters telling you in terms of, you say we don’t have evidence, but are they noticing any go-slow? Are they noticing any drop in export orders?

Simon Birmingham: Thus far, there’ve been some disruptions to shipments, but that’s not an uncommon thing …

Fran Kelly: What does that mean, disrupt shipments? What does that- what constitutes that?

Simon Birmingham: Around timing of processing or the like. So, that’s not been an uncommon experience in recent years. And what we have seen is almost a pattern in relation to some informal quota systems or the like, seemingly operating within the Chinese system. But we’re monitoring closely to see whether there’s anything more to it on this occasion.

Fran Kelly: What do you think is going on here, Minister? Because Beijing would be well aware of how important coal is to the Australian budget. I think we export about $14 billion worth of coal a year. Along with iron ore, it’s really the thing that’s going right for the economy at the moment. If Australian coal isn’t being banned, is there some kind of game being played here? Is China toying with us by spreading disinformation about coal shipments? What do you think’s going on?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t think a lot would be gained by me speculating or guessing or otherwise there, Fran. The best thing that I can do as Trade Minister is to continue to reinforce the mutual benefits and flow from our trading relationship with China. Our inputs to the Chinese economy are important factors in their own production and their own economic strength and wellbeing. Our cooperation on economic growth and trade in recent decades has helped to fuel economic growth and jobs growth right across our region, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And Australia continues to value the partnership, the economic relationship, and – and remains willing to work with China in terms of how we can further that growth for our economy, their economy and those across our region.

Fran Kelly: Okay, there’s no- it’s no secret the tensions in the relationship at the moment. China’s banned of beef and barley exports from Australia this year; its launched investigations into Australian wine. Last week, the former Chinese ambassador to Australia, Madam Fu Ying, was calling for the confrontation and abusive language between the two countries to end, she said. Did you take that as some kind of message from Beijing that China wants to put the acrimony aside and build better relations? Madam Fu Ying is quite senior within the Foreign Ministry. Do you think there is some recovery starting to appear?

Simon Birmingham: Well my response to Madam Fu’s public comments was to reinforce the fact that our door is wide open to having a respectful, engaging, ministerial dialogue. That we are open to doing that at any time that the Chinese leaders are willing to do so and that we will continue to seek to engage in a way that respects the relationship, where each of us, of course, respects the sovereignty of the other and cooperate as we should around the areas that can enhance the peace and security and prosperity of the region that we share.

Fran Kelly: What about privately? Did you or any other minister reach out to Madam Fu Ying?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I haven’t reached out directly to Madam Fu. But, we have –

Fran Kelly: Has somebody? I mean, she’s regarded as a friend of this country?

Simon Birmingham: We have reinforced through Chinese Embassy, following those remarks, the statement that I just made to you around our willingness and desire, certainly, to engage in the type of dialogue that I think Madam Fu was referring to.

Fran Kelly: You’re listening to RN Breakfast. Our guest is the Trade and Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham. Let’s go to tourism now; Tourism Australia is launching a $7 million ad campaign today, to encourage people to get on planes and to take a holiday interstate, where it’s safe and possible to do so. That’s the $60 million question, isn’t it? How safe is it for holiday states like Queensland and WA and the Northern Territory, to invite hordes of holiday makers during a pandemic?

Simon Birmingham: So, this campaign is targeted, in terms of the spending, to reflect the reality that not all parts of Australia can travel at present and that’s for different reasons. Clearly Victorians are unable to travel for reasons that are quite different to what West Australians face. But, across the rest of the country there are differing extents, borders open between different jurisdictions. So, we do want people to start planning, booking and undertaking holidays, because one in 13 Australian jobs depend on our tourism industry. Australians have shown enormous enthusiasm already, to leave their homes in the big cities, hop in their cars and undertake road trips within just a few hours of those homes. But we now want them to think about is over the upcoming summer holidays and beyond, booking a real holiday where they take a week or two; hop on a plane, go interstate, support jobs of people in airlines and airports and hotels and hire car operators and our tour operators, who can give them amazing experiences, be that, learning to dive or exploring the reef or getting out into the outback or visiting wineries or distilleries or the many different, wonderful things people can do across our country.

Fran Kelly: I just imagine what it’s been like in Melbourne, hearing you make all those descriptions at the moment. In fact, we’ve got one text from Melissa, saying: I’d love to holiday in Australia, anywhere more than five kilometres from my home would be lovely. You get what they’re saying there? Melburnians are still locked down in that sense. But it goes to when lockdowns are lifted and when borders are all open, do you expect or are you concerned about and ready for a surge of movement from people? When people can, you know, are free to go to these places? Are we ready for that with the COVID-safe businesses practices?

Simon Birmingham: Australian industry and business has been doing an enormous amount of work with governments to ensure COVID safe practices are there and look, my heart goes out to friends and everyone in Victoria and especially, in Melbourne at present and that’s why we are being conscious in the ad bookings and so on for this campaign to make sure it’s targeted as to where they run, so that we do appreciate those different sensitivities and we will step into the Victorian market, when they are safe and able to do so and we hope that that is as soon as possible. Of course, in all of these undertakings, as in every area of our lives at present; we all do need to maintain a mindfulness and awareness about the risks of COVID, to keep heeding the messages around social distancing, hand hygiene and critically, getting tested at the slightest sign. They’re our strongest resilient points and we need to keep reinforcing that.

Fran Kelly: And just finally, Minister, another issue. New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, was before ICAC yesterday, proving that the state anti-corruption bodies hold powerful people to account. When are finally going to see a federal integrity body? The Government’s been promising it since January 2018, working on it since then. There’s plenty of examples recently where you might have wanted one. I’m thinking of that $33 million Badgery’s Creek land purchase. When are we going to see this?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, the work indeed has been undertaken around consultations and the type of models, for which I think there has been some draft consultation around those models. To say that my focus as Trade and Tourism Minister is, as indeed the whole Government in the budget last week, has been around our economic recovery plan.

Fran Kelly: Sure. But, we can do more than one thing at once in Government? That’s essential. Two years, isn’t that long enough? Is it a priority of this Government?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, our top priority has been keeping people safe and getting them back into their jobs and they are our priority. Now, of course, the Attorney-General works on these other matters and I’m sure continues to do so. But, I think Australians rightly expect that our priorities this year have been about saving their lives and saving their jobs and that’s where we continue to win the economic recovery plan we outlined last week.

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

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure. Thanks, Fran.

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