Topics: Air freight support for farmers, free trade deal with Indonesia, situation in Hong Kong and effects to trade, Finance portfolio speculation, Eden-Monaro by-election.




Peter Stefanovic:          Well, the Federal Government will spend $240 million to extend support for airfreight flights to help farmers and fishers export their fresh produce overseas. The funding boost will deliver $3 billion worth of produce to key international markets after COVID-19 restrictions cancelled flights.


Joining me now is Trade and Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, good morning to you. Thanks so much for joining us. So can you identify who the big winners are here? Which particular sectors and which industries?


Simon Birmingham:     Good morning, it’s great to be with you. Look, this is about investing some $240 million to save $3 billion worth of exports, and those exports include live seafood in our aquaculture sectors, and chilled meats and premium meats, horticultural products – so particularly our farming sectors. We know that our farmers and our exporters work so hard to secure, and lock in, export contracts and the last thing we want is for them to lose those contracts because they don’t have planes that they can put their premium produce on. So this is making sure we do have those freight flights continuing to fly so that we can make sure that we hold up our exporters. We’re into our 29th consecutive month of trade surpluses as a country. Under our government we’re routinely exporting more as a country than we import and we’re determined to make sure we keep that trend going by backing our exports.


Peter Stefanovic:          All right. Well you’ve also got a free trade deal with Indonesia that’s coming into play very soon, I know this has been in the works for some 10 years, but it’ll still be seen as a pivot away from China. Is it?


Simon Birmingham:     Well no, but it’s an expansion of opportunity for exporters and businesses. Australian governments have for decades sought to try to deepen ties with Indonesia. Under our government, we have managed to sign a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with Indonesia and step it up to the next level with the finalisation, and now entry into force on Sunday of this trade agreement between Indonesia and Australia. It’s a huge opportunity for, again, our farmers, our exporting businesses to get more deeply entrenched into a market of 260 million people that is right on our doorstep. But it’s also strategically so incredibly important for us to seize this opportunity to strengthen our ties with Indonesia and to work even more closely as strategic partners in the Southeast Asian region.


Peter Stefanovic:          Well just on that region, the travel advice for Hong Kong, Minister, last night is as follows: national security legislation for Hong Kong has come into effect. This law could be interpreted broadly, is what the government is saying, you can break the law without intending to. So are you advising against travel to Hong Kong?


Simon Birmingham:     Right now we’re advising against travel anywhere in the world, and we in fact have legal restrictions in place in relation to Australians leaving the country, and people need an exemption for that – and that’s a result of the COVID circumstances. However, we have expressed deep our concerns in relation to the security laws and their application in Hong Kong. We desperately wish to see Hong Kong retain its status as a location where under the one country, two systems, the basic law is respected – it continues to be upheld by an independent judiciary, that we want to see those key principles retained because that’s what’s made Hong Kong such an important centre for commerce and investment across our region.


Peter Stefanovic:          The government, well the Prime Minister in fact mentioned yesterday that he is looking at visas for people in Hong Kong. There is some reporting this morning about whether it’s going to be a safe haven visa or a skilled migrant visa. Which one would be the better option, in your opinion?


Simon Birmingham:     I’m not going to speculate on where the Cabinet may land about consideration of these matters. The Prime Minister has sought to make sure that we are prepared for any eventualities, that’s why he’s asked for certain work to be done, options to be brought forward. We’ll look at those to make sure that as a country we are prepared for any eventualities. But our principle is to work closely with our partners who, around the world, share a similar perspective in relation to the agreements that were struck when Hong Kong was returned to China, the commitments that were made for the respect of the Basic Law, for the two systems to operate in different ways under the one country framework of China, and that’s all that we ask to continue.


Peter Stefanovic:          The UK says it will take up to three million people. I mean, I know that we wouldn’t take that many but have you got a rough estimate of how many Australia would be willing to take?


Simon Birmingham:     It’s a long way ahead of that and that would certainly be speculating ahead of us making any decisions as a Cabinet. The prime minister’s just making sure that we’re ready for all eventualities and that’s certainly what we will be doing.


Peter Stefanovic:          When it comes to these national security laws, Minister, what sort of effects could this have on trade?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, it could be a real dampener in terms of investment within Hong Kong, but have a broader impact across the region. Hong Kong is an important trading partner itself for Australia and we have trade agreements specific with Hong Kong, reflecting its unique status in the two systems, that is a different agreement to the one that we have in place with China. Anything that creates instability in the region, economic uncertainty in the region dampens investment in the region is just yet another economic challenge at a time when the world doesn’t need it. We’re facing already the most grave economic challenges that we’ve seen in our peacetime history, and now, now we’re dealing with compounding factors there that don’t need to be there in terms of undermining investor confidence.


Peter Stefanovic:          Yeah. Well, the US overnight says that it would impose sanctions or penalties on some companies who threatened to impose those security laws on the people of Hong Kong. Would Australia consider doing the same at all?


Simon Birmingham:     I don’t want to entertain hypotheticals. We will be prepared as a government for, as I say, any and all eventualities and we will work through all of those circumstances sensibly, methodically, calmly. We’re clear in what we want and that is, that is for continued respect of the two systems and the basic law that exists in Hong Kong.


Peter Stefanovic:          Just on to this situation in Melbourne at the moment, Minister. You must be filthy at this private security company?


Simon Birmingham:     Well it’s just completely unacceptable and we have a situation in Victoria that is indeed threatening the rest of the country in terms of the economic recovery that is so important for all of us. Now, we are working as closely as we can with Dan Andrews and his government – putting politics, and partisanship, and parochialism aside – so too are other states and territories, to try to give them the support to get on top of the failures and problems that have come out of Victoria.


Peter Stefanovic:          Do you fear that state governments might reimpose border restrictions? Queenslanders, you know, is opening the borders to all bar Victorians from next week. Do you fear that there could be a wind back of that?


Simon Birmingham:                 I absolutely fear that this is getting in the way now of the economic recovery that was so important to saving jobs of Australians, and that’s why we want to make sure we get on top of it as quickly as we can. It’s why we’re not interested in blame games or otherwise, those things can be worked out later on. We’re interested in working with Victoria, acknowledging the failings that have happened in Victoria. We’re trying to make sure that they get on top of that, those failings aren’t repeated, that we clamp down in those hotspots and make sure that we demonstrate out of this a model for how we can deal with these sorts of spikes in the future wherever they may occur.


Peter Stefanovic:          Just a couple of quick ones before we go, Minister. There’s reports of Mathias Cormann is leaving politics – do you know if he is?


Simon Birmingham:     No. Look, I know Mathias is 100 per cent focused on the job that he has at present as Finance Minister. These are incredibly challenging budget and economic circumstances and that’s taking all of his time.


Peter Stefanovic:          Well, you’ve been named this morning as a potential successor for the finance portfolio. Are you interested?


Simon Birmingham:     We were just talking about some of the serious issues that we face in the trade portfolio, and they’re taking 100 per cent of my time too.


Peter Stefanovic:          But are you interested?


Simon Birmingham:     Look, reshuffle speculation is something that the press gallery might like to engage in, but ultimately-


Peter Stefanovic:          But that’s not a no. That’s not a no.


Simon Birmingham:     No. No. No. I am telling you I am 100 per cent committed in my job, Mathias is 100 per cent committed in his and that is what we are both getting on with.


Peter Stefanovic:          Okay. Just the last one. Eden-Monaro this weekend but apparently, according to the polls, at the moment Labor is in front. Would that suggests that for some reason the Coalition might well be on the nose? Given the problems that the Labor Party is having at the moment.


Simon Birmingham:     Anthony Albanese has all but lived in Eden Monaro over the last few months – he’s made 20 visits or so into the electorate. This is firmly his by-election to lose and no opposition has lost in 100 years to government. But we’re putting our best foot forward – there are candidates who have been working exceptionally hard. Fiona Kotvojs is a wonderful local representative and candidate. What I would urge the people of Eden-Monaro is to make sure that they do vote for their Liberal candidate preferably, or the National Party candidate, that they exchanged those preferences. But in doing so they will be helping to support the government deliver the type of stable leadership in managing the health crisis and the economic crisis we face into the future.


Peter Stefanovic:          Okay, Our Trade Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham. There was a bit for us to get through there, but appreciate your time this morning. Thanks so much for joining us.


Simon Birmingham:     Thank you my pleasure.