Interview on Sky News Live, First Edition with Laura Jayes
Laura Jayes: Let’s go live to Canberra now, joining me is the Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham. Thanks so much for your time. How concerned are you Minister, about Chinese political infiltration into our system?
Simon Birmingham: Good morning Laura. Look, as intelligence agencies have publicly acknowledged previously, we do face unprecedented levels of foreign interference from a number of sources. That’s why our Government has been incredibly diligent in terms of the steps that we’ve taken over recent years in terms of strengthening and passing new foreign interference legislation in Australia, establishing the National Co-ordinator for Foreign Interference to make sure that we have strong guidance and leadership in place within our systems there. As well as making sure that we have better safeguards in relation to critical infrastructure and emerging technologies, so far as foreign investment relates. So we have been very much leading in terms of providing protection to Australian systems and values to deal with the range of different and new threats that we face from across the globe.
Laura Jayes: That said Minister, last night’s report on 60 Minutes and in Nine newspapers shows that there perhaps are still a few loopholes. Would you agree?
Simon Birmingham: Well Laura I think again you’ve seen the statement from the Director General of Security of ASIO overnight confirming his awareness and our agencies work very thoroughly, carefully through such matters. Their work is not generally publicised but Australians should be reassured that as a government we have the legal safeguards, additional legislation, that we have put in place additional funding into those national security agencies over a period of time and that they are on the job doing as we expect of them in terms of working to protect Australia’s interests, our values, our democracy as should be the case.
Laura Jayes: Nick Zhao’s death seems chillingly suspicious in this report last night. Are you shocked by this report? Should Australians be shocked?
Simon Birmingham: Well obviously these reports are reports that would shock individuals. Now we have not only all of those protections and agencies working hard for Australia’s national interest but also the traditional legal mechanisms such as the coroner in Victoria who will no doubt undertake a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding this death. And it’s important not to prejudice at all those findings of the coroner but to cooperate carefully and closely, the assurance that as a government we seek to provide today to the Australian people, is to make sure that people recall and are aware of the reforms we’ve taken to date, of the work of our agencies who are firmly on the job supported by strengthened laws passed by our government to make sure that Australia’s interests and democracy are protected.
Laura Jayes: The Government could set a precedent here. How important is it to either accept or otherwise the asylum claims of Wang Liqiang, he is calling for asylum to be given, there are obviously complexities in this matter. But on the face of it, if everything checks out should he be given asylum?
Simon Birmingham: Well it’s important that in sticking to our values and protecting our system we also work to that system and that means that such claims and applications are thoroughly assessed by the relevant agencies and that we work through those processes probably and particularly …
Laura Jayes: Are you concerned about a backlash from China?
Simon Birmingham: And particularly important Laura, that ministers of the Crown don’t prejudge such decisions but allow the proper process to actually be followed. And that’s the system that we seek to protect through all of these measures and that’s what we ought to allow to occur.
Laura Jayes: Is one of those — take proper process — is one of those concerns though the economic and political backlash from China we could see?
Simon Birmingham: Well no a proper process in terms of assessing asylum claims is just that, the individuals who seek asylum in Australia, their cases are considered on an individual basis based on the circumstances that they present and the evidence around those circumstances and that’s why I say it’s very important for ministers of the Crown not to prejudge that, but to make sure all of those processes are followed. Our economic circumstances, trading relationships are very important and that’s why we continue to work separately from assessing such individual cases, to work to make sure that we have the most engaging and constructive relationship possible with all of our trading partners. And just this week we will seek to be passing through the Australian Parliament legislation that will enact the Free Trade Agreement with Indonesia. It’s critical to providing enhanced and deeper economic relations in our region with one of our nearest neighbours, fastest growing economies and largest populations. And that’s precisely why we will continue to track in that direction in terms of deepening those trade and economic ties where we can. But we stand steadfast in relation to our values which include, when it comes to providing protection for individuals, are assessed on a case by case basis according to the evidence.
Laura Jayes: A very nimble Segway there to the Indonesia Free Trade Agreement. It will be before the Senate today. This will be all smooth sailing won’t it? When will it actually- well when will we live the Free Trade Agreement with Indonesia if it’s passed this week?
Simon Birmingham: So since President Widodo was sworn in for his second term, he’s appointed a new ministry including a new trade minister who I met with within the last month. And I’m assured that at Indonesia’s level they are working on a similar timeline to Australia for the finalisation of the legislative processes around the Indonesian Free Trade Agreement and if that’s the case then with some necessary notification periods and so on taken into account, I am hopeful that we will see that agreement come into force by or around March next year. Certainly the Australian Parliament I trust will resolve this matter this week and do so in a way that recognises the enormous opportunities for Australia’s farmers and businesses. Some 500,000 tonnes of additional grain, additional steel, deepening investment ties. These are the benefits that are there in terms of the Australia Indonesia FTA. That’s why we want to get on and deliver it. But it’s mutually beneficial potential flow of investment to strengthen further Indonesia’s growth and economy. And that’s why we’re going to work closely and collaboratively with our Indonesian friends to help them to deliver upon it as well.
Laura Jayes: Minister, thank you.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you Laura.