Topics:   Pacific Island workers; UK FTA; China relationship; Tamil family;



Kieran Gilbert: Simon Birmingham, we saw in Joel’s story there the need for workers, seasonal workers, particularly in the citrus industry, in your home state, a travel bubble as a prospect. How important is that? We heard your comment in that story. But more broadly, it would be good to get done both in the humanitarian and aid sense, but also for the Ag industry.


Simon Birmingham: Well, the benefits certainly for our agricultural sector in relation to accessing seasonal workers, especially those from our Pacific Island family of nations, is profound for those communities and those farmers, but also for the workers and the countries from which they come and their families as well. So we’re always keen to help to advance that. It’s a real win-win outcome for Australia and for Pacific Island nations. We’ve seen some very bold steps taken by states like South Australia in terms of facilitating the safe entry of workers under schemes during COVID and hopefully as the vaccine roll out steps up. And Australia is playing a leading role in supplying vaccinations in two targeted Pacific Island nations, we can manage to support them to more freely return and move in and out of Australia as part of those work programs.


Kieran Gilbert: Hopefully get that tourism industry going as well for Fiji and the nations like that so dependent on Australian travel. Let’s look at the UK FTA. You initiated this when you were trade minister and it looks like the in principle agreement will be stitched up and formally announced by the Prime Minister within the next couple of hours there at Number 10.


Simon Birmingham: Some very encouraging signs as the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Johnson worked through the night in London to work through the last stages of negotiations to get an in principle agreement around a free trade agreement between Australia and the UK. If done this will represent the 10th free trade agreement that the coalition has negotiated since we came back to office, expanding the range of choices for Australian exporters so that they can look to trade within our immediate Asian region, but also the opening up, as the TPP did, into new markets like Canada and Mexico. And now this agreement, we hope, with the United Kingdom-


Kieran Gilbert: Is agriculture the big winner of an FTA like this?


Simon Birmingham: So agriculture is always at the forefront of Australia’s considerations when we negotiate a free trade agreement giving our farmers and primary producers, as well as all small businesses, better access to a market. If you go back to when the UK entered the European Common Union, they at the time took on board all of Europe’s high tariffs, high quotas, and in doing so basically collapsed Australian trade and particularly Australian agricultural trade with the UK. This is now a real chance to recover that, to drive the UK back up the list in terms of securing improved access-


Kieran Gilbert: Part of a chance as well, and a focus for the government to diversify away from China.


Simon Birmingham: It’s certainly part of the strategy to provide the maximum number of choices to Australian farmers and businesses, to be able to access as many markets as they choose, and to be able to have the freest possible access into those markets. And it’s why, indeed, the agreements we’ve done with Japan, South Korea, Canada and Mexico, as I mentioned before, with Indonesia, now with the United Kingdom, all trying to give that choice to our producers. The UK currently has a cap in terms of Australian beef, of only around three thousand seven hundred tons. And now what we would hope is to see significant growth in terms of the potential for our beef producers to be able to access what is a high quality, high value market of sixty seven million consumers-


Kieran Gilbert: In high demand, you would think?


Simon Birmingham: Indeed. Now, I don’t expect, though, to see the volume of Australian agricultural goods returned to where they were prior to the UK entering the EU. Back at that stage, Australia was really focussed on what we sent to the UK and that part of the world. Today we’ve got vast markets that we access across our own region, and particularly in terms of bulk and high volume goods. That’s where you’d expect them to go. But, for premium produce, the work that Dan Tehan has done to drive these negotiations home is very encouraging. And of course, I know he has had an absolute razor-like focus when it comes to getting outcomes for the agricultural sector.


Kieran Gilbert: The prime minister has had a big couple of days on the international stage, talks with Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, and he’s meeting with the Queen in a few hours as well. But Joe Biden appears to have bolstered the government in terms of its forward leaning approach to China. Is that a fair way to describe it, given Biden’s support himself for alliances, which is quite different to what we saw under Donald Trump with the American first approach,


Simon Birmingham: President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and have really defined a very clear set of concerns that they have in relation to China’s engagement, to the concerns about aspects of China’s more assertive posture in a security sense, concerns around areas of their economic engagement, concerns around human rights abuses. And they’ve outlined those quite publicly and quite directly to China. But in doing so, we’re also clearly building a strong international support base as they express those. And that’s something that is clearly to be welcomed. And the fact that we’ve seen the NATO summit make such a clear set of statements in that regard-


Kieran Gilbert: NATO, for the first time ever, has issued a criticism of China’s assertive approach. Is that a tipping point, do you think, in terms of the way the world sees China?


Simon Birmingham: It’s a demonstration that we are seeing across the world, a greater awareness and a greater willingness and to call out points of concern. Now, I hope and we would hope that these steps will provide China with cause and thought to consider its approach and engagement and that these can all help to combine to ensure a peaceful and thoughtful cooperation into the future. That our desire is to see a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific region with China playing a key role in that regard. And that if we have a world, particularly democratic, advanced nations across the globe being clear in relation to their concerns and expressing those clearly to China, then that can provide the platform for constructive dialogue and hopefully for us to move beyond some of the concerns that have come about in recent years.


Kieran Gilbert: Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, I spoke to him earlier in the day, and he’s saying that Biloela Tamil family can have community detention, but no sign from him that there is any pathway to the realistic pathway to a visa or permanent residence. Are you comfortable with that?


Simon Birmingham: I think we have to balance two real principles here. One is the principle around border security and recognising that each of these parents have made claims for asylum and they have been through a very thorough process in Australia and comprehensively rejected in terms of the grounds for them to be found to be refugees.


Kieran Gilbert: So happy, for them to be sent back to Sri Lanka?


Simon Birmingham: Ideally, they would have gone back to Sri Lanka a number of years ago, accepted the findings not just of an individual assessment in Australia, but of every single judicial review in relation to those parents that is found they don’t have claims for refugee status. But of course, the other principle is a compassionate element. And that’s why the minister’s made the right decision by reuniting the family, recognising there is an unwell little girl there that ought to have her parents around. That’s a welcome decision. I know he will consider thoughtfully the other decisions that in a legal sense he has to make.


Kieran Gilbert: Why not an exception? Do you really think it would see a flood of boats?


Simon Birmingham:  There are real concerns about the fact that if you start to say there are easier pathways to be able to get permanent residency, it does then trigger a range of other cases. But compassion is important in these circumstances, and I trust the Minister Hawke, having shown it today, will give that due consideration against all of the other factors going forward.


Kieran Gilbert: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time. Appreciate it.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Kieran.