Topics: Economic relationship with China; Senate media inquiry.
Sharri Markson: Minister, China’s been increasingly antagonistic with Australia in our trade relationship. Obviously, this is a problem given they’re our largest trading partner. Are you hoping this major deal today will pave the way for a thawing in relations with China and potentially even provide the opportunity to meet with Chinese political leadership?
Simon Birmingham: Sharri, this agreement is a testament to the ASEAN leadership, those 10 nations in Southeast Asia who come together, and they have really championed and driven this over eight years. And so, ASEAN are central to our strategic view of the region, their centrality as a collection of nations, sovereign nations, and the importance in working with them for respect in the region, for each other’s sovereignty and for a rules-based approach across the region. And that’s part of the reason why Australia has been an enthusiastic and committed participant during the RCEP negotiations to ensure that centrality of the ASEAN nations. Now, it does bring together 15 countries altogether, those 10 ASEANs plus five others, which includes ourselves and China. And yes, look, I would hope, just as the negotiations themselves have provided some potential for engagement along the way at different junctures prior to this year, when we hit the virtual meeting pattern, that in the future the commitment ASEAN leaders and the other RCEP parties’ leaders have made today to RCEP providing a platform for ongoing economic dialogue and engagement can facilitate some of that discussion in the future.
Sharri Markson: With China specifically?
Simon Birmingham: With all of the parties, including China, and it has- as I say, the negotiations over recent years have provided useful opportunities for sometimes one-on-one meetings, discussions on the sidelines of trade negotiations, and so if we maintain that bringing together of the 15 RCEP nations in the future, then it provides another platform and pillar for ministers to be able to have that type of dialogue.
Sharri Markson: Yeah. Look, China’s conduct has been increasingly aggressive this year. There’s been the tariffs on wine and barley, the anti-dumping investigation into the wine industry, an Indian ship carrying Australian coal that’s been stranded off the coast of China, the ban on Victorian timber, the list goes on. What’s your response to this conduct?
Simon Birmingham: Some of these actions, such as leaving sailors stranded offshore for months on end, are just plainly unacceptable. Others are deeply troubling in terms of the uncertainty and the heightened risk that they’ve created in the trade relationship and the environment for Australian businesses doing business with China, but also for those Chinese businesses who rely on what is usually a reliable, high-quality supply of goods and services from Australia into their market. And so it is very disruptive, very concerning and troubling. We have, throughout the course of this year, as these different escalations have occurred, sought to make our views and concerns known. We’ve always engaged in good faith. Where specific concerns are raised in an anti-dumping framework or around labelling concerns or safety concerns, Australia comes to the table and outlines very clearly where we don’t believe those cases have merit, or where if they do have some small merit, how we will put in place steps to rectify it. And that’s the type of thoughtful engagement Australia has. It’s why we would encourage discussion and dialogue from China to help us to fully resolve these sorts of issues, given that we work through the technical issues and are willing to come to the table ourselves to talk about disagreements and noting that we’ll never compromise on our values or the way in which we go about ensuring Australia’s sovereignty is protected in the future.
Sharri Markson: Look, given just how aggressive they have been this year towards Australia, how did you find them in terms of dealing with the Chinese officials and leadership in terms of reaching this agreement? Were they cooperative behind the scenes?
Simon Birmingham: We have worked constructively on this agreement, as we do in a number of other areas of cooperation around the world. When Australia launched ecommerce negotiations at the World Trade Organization, China signed up to be a party to those negotiations. When we convened a meeting of leading WTO nations in the last couple of months to talk about the need to conclude negotiations around fishery subsidies, China attended that meeting. So in a number of ways there is that cooperation, but clearly at the bilateral level at present, the unwillingness to positively respond to our open invitation to sit down at a table in a mature way and address the trade barriers that have been put up during the course of this year and are disrupting the flow of trade between Australia and China is one that worries us and for which we would consistently urge China to recognise that Australia’s door is open and the ball is very much in their court.
Sharri Markson: Briefly to the United States leadership and the transition to the Trump- sorry, to the Biden administration, just when it comes to the Indo-Pacific region, this is obviously a critical point for Australia. It’s one that the Prime Minister Scott Morrison raised in his phone call with Biden this week. He said there was no more critical time for this alliance and for the United States and Australia to work together. He mentioned values and promoting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. What’s your view on how the Biden administration will approach the national security threat that China poses? And also, will you again press the US under a new administration to re-join the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Simon Birmingham: On the whole, US leadership has been a force for good across the world and in our region, in terms of providing for peaceful prosperity, and that’s what we have seen over recent decades in our region, that we have enjoyed a broadly peaceful region where prosperity has grown immeasurably, with hundreds of millions of people being lifted out of poverty as a result of countries opening up and embracing the type of models and approaches to economic engagement that nations like the US or Australia have long espoused. And so, we would firmly encourage a Biden administration to engage in our region and to do so not just at a strategic or security level, but to also do so in an economic sphere. The TPP is a very strong agreement that was negotiated in large part by the Obama administration. It has some of the best rules and practices of any trade agreement going around, and the opportunity is there, certainly, if the Biden administration is willing to take another look at that, for them to demonstrate economic leadership, strategic engagement across our region, and of course to advance trade policy objectives, which we think is a sound argument. All that said, we know that the administration doesn’t even take office until 20 January; they will have many priorities on their plate, so we’re not expecting them to rush to the table, but we hope that it will be given thoughtful consideration over time.
Sharri Markson: Look, I just want to turn briefly to the Sarah Hanson-Young inquiry – the media inquiry that she moved this week sparked by the Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull call for a royal commission into the media. This is an inquiry that she says- she mentions that it has been born of that and says it will look at the call for more diversity in the media. Does the Government support this inquiry?
Simon Birmingham: No, Sharri. Look, I made very clear last week, when asked about Kevin Rudd’s petition, that we saw no need for that sort of investigation, that it clearly is just a stunt and probably an embittered stunt at that. Australia has a very dynamic and diverse media landscape. Now- as is well known. We don’t have the numbers in the Senate to be able to control everything that happens, and crossbenchers and opposition senators frequently manage to get inquiries up that they use the Senate committee process to look into things, but this is not something the Government thinks is a useful use of the Senate’s time, and particularly not as we see through online platforms and other means, indeed, a proliferation of new and additional voices that come through the media landscape.
Sharri Markson: If the Government doesn’t support the Sarah Hanson-Young inquiry, why did the Government- the Coalition not oppose it in the Senate?
Simon Birmingham: We were opposed to the inquiry, but we also can count the numbers and need to manage Senate time, essentially, that last week we were seeking to get the Government’s JobMaker hiring credit legislation through the Senate – that’s about helping to get young Australians employed into new jobs and to make sure that we get young people off of unemployment queues as fast as possible in the economic recovery post-COVID. And frankly-
Sharri Markson: But you didn’t know how Labor was going to vote on this or One Nation, so had the Government opposed it, it might not have got through.
Simon Birmingham: We usually can get a read on the floor, and there’s often a consensus amongst crossbenchers and others that even where they don’t agree with an inquiry, they might let it happen essentially so that they support one another’s inquiries to get up. So, look, there’s a Senate time management perspective. We believe that we don’t call unnecessary divisions that might waste time on the Senate floor. Our focus is on getting the Government’s legislation through that matters to Australians. In terms of-
Sharri Markson: But won’t this now be a time-wasting exercise to have an entire inquiry as opposed to just a time-wasting exercise to have a vote?
Simon Birmingham: This is a Senate committee that will go off and do its business outside of the limited time we have on the Senate floor to get Government legislation through, and getting Government legislation through to implement our budget, help get young Australians back into jobs, pursue other important priorities, be it the Prime Minister’s agenda in terms of waste reduction or ultimately our legislation around foreign interference and foreign relationships, these are all crucial pieces of Government legislation. And we don’t want to see time wasted on the Senate floor unnecessarily. So that’s where our priority sits. Senate committees meet and inquire all the time.
Sharri Markson: Just in terms of the actual inquiry, though, are you not concerned and is the Government not concerned that this provides an opportunity for both Kevin Rudd and Malcom Turnbull to publicly express their political grievances in a format that there is no risk of defamation, where they’re protected by parliamentary privilege?
Simon Birmingham: I think Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull have made some of their views well known publicly. There are many critics of different parts of the media that sit right across the Parliament in all types of spheres who voice their views all the time. Our policy in terms of media reform is what we’ve enacted that also sees us working at present to help make sure that the big global tech giants don’t subsume our media landscape. That’s the real threat that we see existing right now. It is that paid journalistic content needs to actually be paid for and respected, and that’s why we’ve been undertaking the work of negotiating very much around the type of code of conduct that can be put in place to protect media outlets in Australia with Australian voices who employ Australian journalists to be able to keep doing their job and to be paid for doing their job without having their content borrowed or stolen by platforms that don’t make a fair contribution to it.
Sharri Markson: Absolutely. Thank you very much for your time, Simon Birmingham. Really appreciate it.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Sharri. My pleasure.