Interview on Radio National, PM with Sally Sara.
Topics: report into Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop; proposed increase to Newstart Allowance; visit to China, Australian coal exports; criticism from Huawei
Sally Sara: Senator Simon Birmingham is the Federal Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Senator Birmingham is going to China next week for regional trade talks. He’ll be the first minister from the new Morrison Government to visit Beijing. I spoke with him earlier.
Senator Birmingham, thank you for joining us. Before we discuss your upcoming trip to Beijing, first to this report, finding that there’s been no breach of ministerial rules by Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop. Do you think that their actions are ethical and would they pass the so-called pub test?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Sally, we have a Ministerial Code of Conduct and Prime Minister Scott Morrison did the right thing when questions were asked and he asked the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, an esteemed public servant, to undertake an independent assessment. Dr Martin Parkinson spoke to both Mr Pyne and Ms Bishop, and in doing so, he came to the conclusion that they are not in breach of the Ministerial Code of Conduct. In the end, that’s the only question that’s there, and it has been answered and answered in an independent way by the senior public service representative there.
Sally Sara: Can you understand why this is an ongoing troubling issue though?
Simon Birmingham: Well, it shouldn’t be because it has now been looked at, looked at with that degree of independence, looked at against the Code, and answered, as I say, by a very senior public servant.
Sally Sara: On a separate issue, there are increasing calls for an increase to the Newstart welfare payment. Do you think that it should be raised?
Simon Birmingham: No, look, the Government’s priority has been very clear here and it was one that I and others answered questions on during the election campaign and before. So we’ve been completely consistent in our position here, which is that our priority is to make sure that we get the maximum number of Australians into work. 99 per cent of recipients of Newstart receive some form of supplementary payment over and above the base level they receive – rent assistant, family tax benefit assistance – a range of other measures. We also know that, I think, it’s around 70 per cent of Newstart recipients are only on that payment for 12 months or less, transitioning off ideally into other work. That’s our priority to make sure that we keep getting people into work, and we’ve been doing that in record number and that’s what we want to keep doing.
Sally Sara: Let’s move on to your visit to China next week. The Defence Minister Marise Payne was criticised by China for raising concerns about detained Chinese-Australian writer, Yang Hengjun. Will you also be raising the issue?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ll see what bilateral engagement I have and dependent upon the meetings I’m having, I will raise what’s appropriate to raise in those meetings with relevant to Chinese representatives. Our approach to China is that we have a frank and honest one, particularly when we sit down opposite one another. We’re happy to talk about the issues that may be of disagreement on both sides, but we also have a vast agenda upon which we have had mutual benefit. And as Trade Minister, I want to make sure that we continue to maximise those areas of mutual benefit, because they haven’t just benefited China’s economy or Australia’s economy, they’ve benefited peoples in both our countries in terms of creating more prosperity, more opportunity, more openness, and more freedom as a result of the huge growth we’ve seen in trade investment in economic activity over recent decades.
Sally Sara: When it comes to the trade talks, what does Australia want from these discussions?
Simon Birmingham: So, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement is a very exciting one; it brings together 16 nations, ten of whom are amongst Australia’s top trading partners. It comprises a vast volume, around 60 per cent of our total two-way trade. And so what we’re looking for here is a new – as it’s described – comprehensive economic partnership agreement in our region. The countries involved, China and India, are both massive nations. Japan and Korea are both historically huge trading partners for Australia. And the 10 ASEAN nations together with ourselves and New Zealand. If we can realise a trade agreement here, it will symbolically be hugely important in pushing back against some of the tone of protectionism from elsewhere in the world. And it will also state very clearly that our Asian region, which has benefited so much from opening up trade and investment opportunities in the recent decades, is committed to continuing to do that in the future, to continue to be the economic growth and powerhouse region of the world.
Sally Sara: Senator, what’s the latest information that you have on what’s happening with Australian coal exports to china; are there simply delays, or is something bigger going wrong?
Simon Birmingham: There do continue to be delays. We continue to receive, as we have, assurances from Chinese officials that those delays are as a result of increased checking, environmental and otherwise, of shipments coming into China, and that they are not targeted specifically at Australia. Certainly, we will continue to raise questions to make sure that Australian industry can have as much certainty as possible about precisely what standards have to be met, what checks will occur, and that they can plan not only from the Australian business end, but also importantly those Chinese businesses who rely upon that coal can have confidence that they will receive the shipments that they order, in a timely manner, with appropriate confidence.
Sally Sara: Last week a top executive from the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei criticised the Federal Government’s ban. Do you think that the detained writer Yang Hengjun is being used as a bargaining chip in the Huawei dispute?
Simon Birmingham: We would certainly hope not, and Foreign Minister Payne has been very clear in relation to the fact that if there are issues of political views or political interference that are behind any detention, then of course, he ought to be released. The Foreign Minister has given a very detailed statement on that, and has undertaken a range of representations directly and through our representatives in China, and will continue to do so. In relation to the question of participation in 5G networks in the future – Australia’s taken a position that isn’t targeted at any one provider or any one country, but is about ensuring that those who participate in the new 5G networks that will be built and established across Australia, are companies that are not likely to be or susceptible to direct instruction from foreign governments, but indeed give us the confidence that we can have the safety, security, of what will be a very wide ranging applications of 5G technology right across different aspects of our economy.
Sally Sara: Trade Minister Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining us on PM.
Simon Birmingham: My pleasure Sally, thank you.
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