Foreign policy with regard to China; US-China trade war; Iran; banning of mobile phones in classrooms in Victoria.




Michael Rowland: Trade and Acting Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now from Parliament House. Minister good morning.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning Michael.


Michael Rowland: Later today, later this morning, the Prime Minister is going to give his first big foreign policy speech since his re-election and he’s going to use very strong language or relatively strong language when it comes to China. He’ll be talking about how with power comes responsibility. The PM will say forced technology transfer is unfair, intellectual property theft of which China has been accused by many countries can’t be justified. So is this foreshadowing a much stronger tone by Australia against China?


Simon Birmingham: No Michael it’s not against China. This is a message that is being played in terms of making a clear statement that with great power comes great responsibility. It applies to both major powers the United States and China, that in terms of the United States they of course have had great power for a long period of time. Since the period following the Second World War, helped to build and establish the global institutions and rules that have guided the growth in trade and development of our economies under which China for example has grown exponentially in recent years. And that’s something that we welcome and we want to see that growth in China continue as with other countries in our region and other less developed countries right around the world. China now itself also has great power and so it needs to recognise that with that power comes the responsibility to ensure that it’s operating according to rules that are fair, that recognise that intellectual property should be protected. That’s something we’ve said for a long period of time and we welcome the fact that President Xi himself has indicated that China will do more to protect intellectual property into the future. What we want to make sure there is that that actually happens. We equally think that in terms of trade disputes, the use of unilateral tariff measures is not the way to get an answer in relation to these matters, nor indeed threatening the functionality of the World Trade Organization. So both parties have messages in terms of the PM’s speech today, but overall in terms of how they conduct themselves to resolve this trade dispute that is having repercussions for all regions in terms of impacting the global economy.


Michael Rowland: I’ll get to that dispute again in just a moment but as we all know what China has sometimes said and what it does are two different things when it comes to saying yes we’ll do that, we’ll do this, we’ll observe the rules based trading system. As you well know Simon Birmingham, it’s not always been the case with China.


Simon Birmingham: Michael, China is an amazing story. Hundreds of millions of people have lifted out of poverty in the 40 years since the period opening and reform began in China and that is something indeed to be applauded.  And it’s a great example, I think perhaps the best possible example of the benefits of opening up markets and becoming a trading nation. Here in Australia one in five Australian jobs are trade related.  But we do want to see that China now as a major economic power exercises that power in ways that help to secure continued growth, not just for those areas in China that remain less developed but of course for other countries around the world, especially those across our region who still have huge developmental challenges, and the best thing for them is to see China and the United States engage and behaving in ways that strengthen the rules based order, that modernise it and where they actually stick to it rather than  operate under any belief that might is right in which is clearly not the way in which smaller and middle nations can sustain such rules and operations.


Michael Rowland: The Prime Minister will express his concern that Australia will become collateral damage, his words there, if these tensions between China and the United States escalate any further, how worried is Australia given the importance of both countries but China in particular, are we about the fallout of this dispute on our economy here? 


Simon Birmingham: Well these nations are incredibly important to us. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, the United States is Australia’s largest investment partner. And so we have strong and deep economic ties before you get to other aspects of the relationship with both countries. We’ve already seen with entities things like the IMF, the OECD, reduce down the rate of growth in global trade and from that reduce down expectations around the rate of growth like in the global economy. That has an impact on us as it does upon all of the nations, and we’ve already built that into our budget projections and forecasts. But we do urge them to heed the message, it isn’t just coming from us, it comes from Singapore, Japan, Europe, many other like-minded countries delivering a common and consistent message to please end this dispute, to please recognise that the rules based system for international trade has served us all incredibly well for decades, to commit to it, to modernise and to work with us to make sure that we can all continue to use that as a platform for prosperity and growth in the future.


Michael Rowland: Something that certainly has escalated and escalated overnight are those tensions between America and Iran, we also know America is trying to build a global coalition to push back against Iran. America does not want any nuclear weapons to come out of that country. So Minister, is Australia prepared to sign up to in the first instance, measures that involve tougher sanctions on Iran? 


Simon Birmingham: Australia doesn’t want to see nuclear weapons come out of Iran, nor do we wish to see the sponsorship of terrorism or other activities. We’ve been quite concerned about some of the destabilising behaviour of Iran and we would call on the Iranians to exercise real calm, at present we’ve seen the United States step up economic sanctions being applied against Iran and Iranian officials. Australia already has a range of economic sanctions in place and those are constantly under review and we will continue to constantly review those as people would expect, to make sure we are putting the appropriate pressure on to minimise the prospects of Iran becoming a full nuclear powered state and the risks that can come from that.


Michael Rowland: At the same time if it came to it, and this is completely hypothetical but given where the tensions are going who knows, would Australia caution Donald Trump against any military action against Iran?


Simon Birmingham: We don’t wish to see any escalation in a way that potentially damages peace and prosperity for the future and both peace and prosperity will not be served by Iran becoming a nuclear powered state or by Iran being in a position to provide technology and weaponry to terrorism organisations that could clearly undermine peace and prosperity around the world.


Michael Rowland: Will global peace be strengthened though through the disruption, would global peace be strengthened by any US led military strike on Iran?


Simon Birmingham: We hope that it doesn’t come to that and we want to work through the steps in terms of the economic sanctions that we already have in place. What the United States has done at present is elevate their economic sanctions. Yes, there is a lot of rhetoric flying around at present but I think the point that we would make is to urge for calm and focus on the outcome that everybody agrees upon when it comes to dealing with Iran across like-minded countries and that is that we do not wish to see Iran developed and to be a nation that has nuclear capability and all the risks that come with that. We urge Iran to engage in a way that constructively addresses those concerns and does not escalate tensions any further.


Michael Rowland: A couple of other issues before we go, to David Speers excellent documentary on the leadership turmoil in the Liberal Party last year. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, your liberal Senate colleague told David Speers yesterday that she believes Scott Morrison supporters helped engineer the coup, the spill, that brought down Malcolm Turnbull of whom you were a very strong supporter. What’s your response to that?


Simon Birmingham: Look I don’t necessarily accept all the analysis that’s going on there but I think the Australian people cast their verdict on May 18, they put these matters behind them and they’re certainly behind in terms of my approach and Scott Morrison’s approach where our job now is to govern in Australia’s national interest which with the type of unity, direction, calm and purpose that Scott Morrison is showing his leadership.


Michael Rowland: Well the Australian people care that series are seeing a party still pretty heavily divided over what happened last year?


Simon Birmingham: I think the government from its leadership, from the Cabinet ranks really is focused on the job at hand and has a strong sense of unity, purpose, direction at present. We took the message from the Australian people that they want lower taxes, not higher taxes. Anthony Albanese and the Labor Party are still struggling to grapple with that message as they oppose our tax cuts and our plans for tax relief. We’re going to make sure that we get on and deliver the things that Scott Morrison promised to the Australian people and build on the wonderful legacy of Malcolm Turnbull in terms of the work that he did to put us in a position where we could lower taxes, to help put us in a position where we could balance the  budget and we are going to keep delivering on those outcomes.


Michael Rowland: Okay as a former education minister before we could go, what do you make of this announcement by the Victorian Government that it’s just going to be banning all mobile phone usage during school hours and state schools in Victoria next year? 


Simon Birmingham: Michael I strongly welcome the decision by Victoria to take a leadership role in relation to the control of personal mobile phones and devices in school classrooms. This is something that I spoke about as Education Minister, and called on the states to look at back in February of 2018 last year. Really what this decision does is it better empowers teachers to be able to focus students in the classroom with fewer distractions, fewer disruptions on their learning and it doesn’t put teachers in the position of having to be the bad cop who sets the rules around these devices. It gives teachers clear guidance and they from there can ensure that yes where appropriate, technology and devices are used in learning as they need to be appropriately in preparation for the modern economy, but that personal devices are not there as disruptors in the classroom that take away from those learning objectives and I congratulate the Victorian Government for doing so and James Merlino in particular.


Michael Rowland: Okay thank you. Now thanks for your time and my colleague Dan Connifer will escort you out of the ABC studios so we all know you’ve had a bit of an issue mistaking walls for doors in the last couple of days. What’s this about? 


Simon Birmingham: Well yesterday I may have been a victim of a practical joke by some of the some of the cameramen here in the press gallery who after I’d come out to do the press conference, locked the door that I used. So I take it all in good humor, it was it was a bit of fun and a good laugh there in the courtyard at Parliament House.


Michael Rowland: Good stuff. Hey Minister thank you very much for your time.