• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Chinese Ambassador’s remarks, investigation into the causes and management of COVID-19; students returning to schools
28 April 2020

Kieran Gilbert: Let’s go live to the Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham. Minister, thanks so much for your time. I want to start with this- what the Government says is attempted economic coercion from the Chinese Ambassador. Were you surprised how blunt he was in those remarks?

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon, Kieran. Look, those remarks were surprising and they were certainly unfortunate. In no way the Australian Government is going to change our policy positions on matters of public health in response to any suggestion of economic coercion from the representative of another nation. Our policy positions are structured so as that what we seek to do is to protect the health and wellbeing of Australians. And when it comes to COVID-19, we need to be honest about the impact, not just in Australia, but around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have died; hundreds of millions have probably lost their jobs; billions of people have suffered disruption to their lives; and it’s not asking much that there be a transparent investigation to ensure that the world learns from this and that we are better placed to prevent the impacts of such pandemics in the future.

Kieran Gilbert: So what did the Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Frances Adamson say to the Ambassador, and if I can, what was his response?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, these are discussions that happen rightly behind closed doors. The Government’s displeasure was made known and the Government has been very clear in terms of our policy position and what it is that we seek to have occur. Ideally, we want to see organisations such as the World Health Assembly embrace the need for reform and improvements to the World Health Organisation and the need for an open, transparent, independent investigation into the causes of COVID-19 and its handling and the way in which the world has responded so that we are all, every single nation, better placed to be able to prevent a repeat episode in the future.

Kieran Gilbert: When you look at the attempted misinformation from the Chinese Communist Party authorities, you know as an observer you can understand it in terms of their own population because they do that propaganda all the time. But what aim would they be internationally, as if we’re going to buy it, that it didn’t start where we quite clearly know it did in China?

Simon Birmingham: China is a valued partner, a key global power, and of course, within our region Australia and China are going to continue to need to work together well and truly into the long term. So, I don’t want to go to motivations or casting judgment or otherwise in relation to these matters. Our policy position is very clear, and not just in relation to wanting to get to the bottom of COVID-19, but also in relation to our willingness and desire to continue to have open relations between the Australian people and Chinese people, open trading ties, which are important to both countries in terms of the two-way flow of goods and services. And we want to make sure that we are open to maintain positive partnership, positive engagement, and what we would really welcome is an acknowledgement from China. A transparent, open investigation around the causes and management of COVID-19 will be good for everybody in terms of protecting populations in every single country to prevent the type of repeat of this episode into the future.

Kieran Gilbert: When you look at the situation internationally, obviously, we are doing incredibly well by any measurement right now, in terms of coronavirus numbers, in terms of the take-up on the app. I mean, Australians are really rallying to this. But I guess, in a sense, because we’ve avoided the calamity that has been seen internationally, do you think those other likeminded countries will get on board with this call for transparency from China once they emerge from the midst of having to deal with this calamity on their nations?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, I think it’s a fair observation that firstly certainly Australia has handled this extraordinarily well and it’s a credit to the cooperation of governments across Australia, but really a credit to the Australian people in the way in which they have accepted the restrictions that have been put in place, embraced the messages around basics such as hand hygiene and social distancing, and are getting on board with downloading the COVIDSafe app – all of it enabling us to suppress the spread of COVID-19 and hopefully to be able to return to greater levels of normal economic activity over the coming weeks or months. And so it’s really important. But it’s also a fair observation that Australia is, because of the successful handling of this, perhaps better placed, maybe has a little bit more bandwidth, across governments at present to consider some of the broader issues such as a global investigation into the causes and management of COVID-19 than other governments who are dealing with true crisis situations in their country, we understand that. We’ll continue to work with those governments. Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister have been very proactive but also very understanding in their outreach with their global counterparts and what we want to do is to keep working with them whilst we also make sure that in Australia, we continue to avoid those horrific scenes we’ve seen of mass graves, overfilled hospital wards, corridors and all of the other tragedies.

Kieran Gilbert: Absolutely. And you have a lot of engagement with your counterparts from the G20 nations. They’ve copped it in a massive way, from the health sense to the economic sense. There’s no doubt there will be pressure from those sorts of groups surely once we emerge or start to emerge from COVID-19.

Simon Birmingham: I think it’s a pretty basic equation really. If this were to happen in any single country, well, surely the pressure for a royal commission or equivalent type investigation would be overwhelming and it would be a fait accompli that that would occur. This is a challenge in the sense that it has happened as a global pandemic across all nations. And so it is a test of the ability and the willingness of the world and to be able to respond in a way that gives the same degree of transparency, the same degree of investigation, as would occur were it just isolated to a country like Australia. And that will take a lot of cooperation and a lot of effort across the world to be able to stand up such an inquiry, but it is essential if we are to make sure that we are better prepared in the future, to avoid a repeat circumstance in terms of the development of COVID-19 and in terms of the failure, not just in one or two countries, but obviously in many countries to be able to suppress and contain it as well. This is not just about where it came from but rightly to look at how the WHO advises the world and how the world responds in terms of containing such threats in the future as well.

Kieran Gilbert: Treasury Secretary Steven Kennedy this morning said to the Senate committee looking into this issue, quote, it’s valuable to Australia to be complimentary to Chinese growth, unquote. We are- that’s in his Treasury speak, but I mean, basically he’s saying this is a high stakes game we’re talking about right now, isn’t it? Because in large part, foreign students is one of our biggest exports and as you well know, the huge number of tourists that come and spend a lot of money here.

Simon Birmingham: Those are factors. Australia’s resources and energy also helped power much of the manufacturing growth and construction activity within China. Our agricultural exports help to ensure the type of high quality, highly nutritious foods that emerging and growing middle classes demand in a country like China. So our economies are very complementary in a number of ways and that is between the two of us. And China will continue to be the second largest economy in the world, the largest consumer market within our region, and that is why we want to continue to maintain positive partnerships – not just for those economic reasons, but because in the end we will both continue to occupy a space within this dynamic region of the Indo-Pacific. We need to make sure that so far as possible, despite our differences in values and our differences in our democratic structures, that we are able to engage openly and honestly where we have those differences, but also cooperatively to ensure, so far as possible, the peace and prosperity of our region.

Kieran Gilbert: Yeah, well, that makes a lot of sense, we hope that’s right. And in terms of your announcement today, you’ve committed I think, about $100 million, is that right? For zoos and aquariums in Australia which obviously are having to spend, still, a lot of money, to keep the animals okay and the facilities going but no one is visiting.

Simon Birmingham: That’s right Kieran. You know, the first response we had was to make sure that the health and safety of Australians was protected. The second was about the economic welfare of individual Australians, hence the additional coronavirus supplement that was provided to go alongside the JobSeeker payment and other welfare payments of relevance. And then the creation of the JobKeeper payments and the

massive multi-billion-dollar support there to keep people through wage subsidies tied to their employers and support for small businesses. But then as we’ve looked through some of the other economic and- impacts associated with the shut downs, there are some clear stand-outs. We’ve delivered more support to get exports to market through freight assistance. We’ve of course delivered additional support right across areas of public health. But what came to light was that many of these exhibition zoos, wildlife parks and aquariums have incredibly high fixed costs that go well beyond the wages of their staff and relate to the feeding of animals, the care and welfare of animals, veterinary support and essential research. And so these funds are about making sure that animals get the care and food that they need while these businesses are shut. And while they can’t receive the 20 million plus paying visits that they receive each and every year, they don’t have any of those 20 million visitors, they don’t have of those 20 million plus individual payments, and that’s why we need to step in.

Also to ensure their viability so that when restrictions are eased, these types of exhibitors such as Sea World on the Gold Coast, which is of course a big draw card, not just to visitors to Sea World, but it fills associated apartments, hotels, restaurants and other attractions within that big tourism economy of the Gold Coast.

Kieran Gilbert: Now just finally on the schools’ issue. 95 per cent of students in your home state of South Australia will be attending school. Why aren’t we seeing similar numbers elsewhere in the country?

Simon Birmingham: South Australia – and credit to Steven Marshall and the state government here – has done an extraordinary job of managing to limit the spread of COVID-19. I think 18 out of the last ten days in SA now, zero new cases have been recorded. And the number of active cases in SA is I think well below 20 now. So that has enabled the public to have confidence in terms of return to schools and other areas of activity. For example, in South Australia, it’s a ten-person limit around gatherings still rather than the two- person limit applied elsewhere.

I know that my daughters were absolutely thrilled to be able to get back to school yesterday and I’m delighted to see the strong uptake of South Australians. And I would say to the rest of the country, the health advice is clear, that your children are safe at school. The health advice is clear that support for hardworking teachers and staff at schools can enable them to be safe in the school environment as well. And the educational advice is overwhelming that the best place for children to learn is in the school environment and that’s why we want to encourage states to support schools to reopen as it’s safe to do so, wherever it’s safe to do so as thoroughly and comprehensively as they can.

Kieran Gilbert: Do you agree with Peter Dutton, that the teachers’ unions are having too much clout in some jurisdictions? His criticism was leveled at the Queensland Premier but he is quite clearly of the view that the teachers’ unions aren’t cooperating as much as they should be.

Simon Birmingham: We’ve seen some irresponsible actions from the Teachers’ Union. Even here in SA where things have been going so well, the Teachers’ Union decided to attack the Public Health Officer on social media. That was a reprehensible act, completely unnecessary to go after a senior public servant who has done an incredible job in keeping South Australians safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. So frankly I think the Teachers’ Union has by and large been quite unhelpful through this. I know many, many hardworking teachers who are disappointed in terms of some of those attacks and those misrepresentations . And what I would urge the Teachers’ Union to do as well as principals’ bodies and all others who I used to work with as education minister, is to sit down with those public health experts, listen to their advice and their analysis and understand that it is safe, you can work through any remaining issues, you can put in place protections. For example, when I’ll be doing school drop off or pick up occasionally over coming weeks, I won’t be entering the school grounds, I’ll be following all of those guidelines of waiting outside to minimise the contact between adults, because the spread between adults is where the threat appears to be greater not the spread from children.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, I appreciate your time. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Kieran.