• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Indonesia trade relations; Chinese foreign interference
25 November 2019

Simon Birmingham:    The Government is going to seek to pass legislation which can provide for Australian to ratify free trade agreements with Indonesia, Peru, and Hong Kong. This is an exciting opportunity for us to keep trade relations with a number of important economic partners, but especially in relation to Indonesia. Indonesia is one of our nearest neighbours, a most important partner to Australia, a rapidly growing economy with a booming and growing middle class. This is a huge opportunity for Australian farmers and businesses to be able to benefit from an Indonesia-Australia closer economic partnership agreement, that I am confident we’ll see farmers gain, as we can see, up to 500,000 tonnes of grains to Indonesia, tariff-free, as well as many other farming produce; manufacturers gains for getting enhanced access for Australian steel into Indonesia. And indeed, our ties deepen as we see exchange in services, businesses, in Australian health, education, ageing providers, able to operate in Indonesia, buy better services for the Indonesian public, as well as investment ties deepening and growing, helping to further fuel that growth of our very important, near neighbour and partner in Indonesia.

I trust that this will see smooth passage through the Parliament, and that we can then, in the first half of next year, see that agreement come into force providing those real benefits that will continue to underpin the record levels of exports that we have generated as a government thanks to our enhanced trade flow.

Question:        Just on China, Minister Birmingham. Obviously, as a country that we do awful amount of trade with – is it a relationship though that should be based on trust?

Simon Birmingham:    Look, we have an important partnership and relationship with China. It is one where we also engage frankly at times in dialogue, where we have points of difference. And that’s important to know that when we sit down as governments talking to one another, we address those points of difference; we address those concerns. And that’s something the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister particularly do in their dialogue. There are clearly some very concerning stories that have been in- over recent 24 hours, in particular.

It’s important that the Australian people are reassured at a time like this, that our security agencies of government, the legislation supporting them have all been built to deal with these sorts of circumstances. That, yes, as our agency leaders have recognised publicly before, we face unprecedented levels of foreign interference in Australia. And not just from one country, but from multiple sources. And we have established the type of support in terms of the stronger legislation dealing with foreign interference, the establishment of a national coordinator to counter foreign interference, additional funding into our security agencies, and tougher protections in relation to foreign investment in areas of critical infrastructure and key emerging technologies. And these are all important safeguards that we have built as a government to make sure that we can deal with the types of circumstances that have been published in the last 24 hours.

Question:        You’ve been around this place for a long time, though. The allegations of the CCP trying to effectively get an agent into the Australian Parliament – how much does that concern you?

Simon Birmingham:    These, of course, are concerning allegations. But in seeking to defend our system and its processes and values, we also have to back our system with processes and values, and that means that we back our agencies to do the job that we put them in place to do, in terms of investigating these matters. We’ve seen overnight the statement released by the Director-General of Security of ASIO, acknowledging their awareness of these matters already; that they are, of course, confident, across them, working diligently and thoroughly as they should, outside of the public limelight, addressing these issues, to make sure they continue to work hard as they do day and night to protect Australia’s values, or democracy, and our institution.

Question: It’s an extraordinary step for ASIO I mean it’s 70 years releasing a statement like this is almost unheard of. Can we trust the Chinese Communist Party?

Simon Birmingham:    Our relationship with China is one between two nations. Two Nations, in Australia and China. We have points of difference. We have very different systems, the Prime Minister has made very clear, we don’t seek to adopt their system of government, they don’t seek to adopt ours. We have points of difference in terms of values and we raise consistently our concerns in relation to matters such as potential human rights violations. We have done that for a long period of time and we will continue to do that were it is consistent with our values. But we do have close ties between Australian business and Chinese business, between Australian citizens and Chinses Citizens and we ought to make sure that we provide for respectful engagement where we can, that allows for the differences to be aired and the concerns to be raised directly and where need be forcefully. But also for us to continue to advance the relationship where we can, which has been to the mutual benefit of people in both our nations. The growth of China has seen not only hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens lifted out of poverty but enhanced access to education health care other essential services that are of value there. But none of that, and none of that detracts from the fact primary obligation we have is for the safety of Australians. And the security of Australia, including our institutions. And that is why we will continue to work as thoroughly as we can. To protect that. And to provide the agencies with the laws and resources necessary to do so. 

Question:        You keep saying it points a difference, but trying to plant an MP in the Federal Parliament. Is that really a point of difference isn’t it that’s something more isn’t?

Simon Birmingham:    Once again as I’ve said. We’ve got to back our agencies to do the job we want them to do, that we’ve put them in place to do. I’m not going to prejudge allegations. There is nothing to be gained by a politician’s self or others in terms of prejudging or leading in commentary on those allegations. We have to make sure as leaders of the government of the day is that we back our agencies; with the legislation, the resources and the powers to do their job thoroughly and effectively. That’s what our government has done in terms about foreign interference legislation in terms of additional resourcing and in terms of other measures that we have taken to safeguard Australia. 

Question:        Rex Parsons called for foreign interference briefing of parliament. So does that something the government maybe consider now considering these allegations? 

Simon Birmingham:    We consider requests or briefings as necessary on a case by case basis and of course such requests will always be given due consideration when we have the parliamentary joint committee on security intelligence that receives regular briefings all parliamentarians in relation security matters. And some of those briefings have been canvassed as well in the last. 24 hours. But importantly in terms of safeguarding Australia and our democratic institutions; that’s why we have the type of security agencies in place with the type of legal frameworks that our government delivered. To strengthen them and their ability to protect Australia’s 

Question:        The free trade agreement with Indonesia and Hong Kong. The union members don’t like it. What would you say to that? Why do you think they don’t like the idea of having a free trade agreement with those two nations?

Simon Birmingham:    Look, I would urge the union movement and critics of these trade agreements to look at the lived experiences of the agreements that we have struck in recent years. Australian exports are at record levels. Those exports are fuelling jobs in Australia. And the reality is that those exports have grown particularly fast to markets like Korea, Japan, China members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership because of the trade agreements we’ve struck. And we will see I am confident a similar trajectory in Indonesia and other nations where we strike trade deals. Where increased Australian exports provide for more Australian jobs and that should be good news for union members as well as everybody else operating across the Australian economy. And that’s why I fought to backing those agreements.

Question:        Given the 24 hours and the importance that the Australian government places on trade relations with China. Have you sought to reach out to your Chinese counterpart?

Simon Birmingham:    Look, in terms of my counterpart I deal with him on a range of different settings in relation to trade negotiations and discussions. I’ve not had engagement with him on the trade level in the last. 24 hours but of course I would anticipate and expect that and rightly, the foreign minister who’s been at the G20 in Japan and discussing with other foreign ministers. Will have an opportunity in terms of dialogue at the next chance with her counterpart [indistinct]. Thanks guys.