• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: China investigation into Australian barley imports, requests to extend JobKeeper and JobSeeker, Mike Kelly resignation.
10 May 2020

Simon Birmingham: …to reports about China’s potential imposition of duties on Australian imports of barley. China has been undertaking, for close to 18 months now, an investigation into claims made within China of dumping or subsidisation of Australian barley imports to China. There is an investigation with which the Australian Government and Australian barley producers have cooperated fully, providing evidence and information along the way, that demonstrates consistent with our view very clearly that there is no basis on which to believe that the Australian barley industry operates on anything other than a commercial footing.

Australia’s farmers and barley producers are some of the most competitive in the world and because they embrace the use of technology, the best practice farming that they possibly can, and they get their product out to market at the lowest possible price in an entirely commercial way — free of undue government subsidy or any other market distortions.

We are deeply concerned by reports that China may impose duties upon our barley producers. We have, as I said, cooperated to date and there is still a small window of time before this decision is finalized, and we will continue to advocate and work hard with our barley producers to present the strongest possible case to ensure these duties are not imposed in the future. We see no basis upon which they are justified and we see no basis upon which they ought to occur, and we will reserve all rights in terms of the types of appeals or other aspects of pursuing this further that would be available to the Australian government should the final decision go against our barley producers.

Question: Do you fear this is the first move in a bigger game?

Simon Birmingham: I’d note this is an investigation has been running for 18 months and was always to conclude within the next couple of weeks and so this timeline for conclusion of this investigation has long been known. But I would be very clear that we see no basis upon which the application of duties onto Australian barley producers in response to allegations of dumping or subsidisation could possibly be justified.

Question: Do you think this is politically motivated because in fact it started after we’d banned Huawei from the 5G network?

Simon Birmingham: My view is that this issue ought to be firmly decided on the merits of the case, and that is certainly what we will continue to argue in defence of Australia’s barley producers. There is no justification for claims of dumping or subsidisation of the product by Australia’s barley producers and we will continue to argue very firmly that this ought to be decided on the evidence related to this case alone.

Question: This what China threatened though, isn’t it? They released a statement saying, given some of the comments that have been made during this crisis we might rethink our taste for Australian beef, and Australian wine, and Australian barley. This is just simply Beijing following through on their threat, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: We want to make sure and expect that this ought be decided purely on the merits of the evidence in the case and we see that there is not even a prima facie case that Australian barley producers should have to answer, let alone a conclusive case that Australian barley producers are at all subsidised or dumping their product. They price and operate in accordance with global markets, in accordance with the best practice production that Australian farmers undertake. And our position will remain quite resolute and firm in defence of our producers, and that the issue ought to be decided solely on the merits of the evidence surrounding this case.

Question: Will you consider taking this matter to the WTO if this- if they continue on this? When it comes to barley?

Simon Birmingham: We reserve all rights in relation to continuing to defend and uphold the integrity of Australian farmers and barley producers. We hope that we can, over the coming days, ensure a positive outcome that finds in accordance with what we believe the facts of the matter to be, and that is that Australian farmers and barley producers do not receive undue subsidies and do not dump their product on foreign markets. But if the case were to go against them, then we absolutely reserve our right to pursue all other avenues, including through the WTO.

Question: To the best of your knowledge, at any stage have any Chinese officials come to Australia to investigate this case which is part of the WTO process?

Simon Birmingham: No.

Question: Does it not strike you as unusual that they haven’t done that if they’re looking into this matter if it’s an actual investigation?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Australian Government has sought to co-operate, as have our barley producers, in providing ample evidence that would refute the claims that are being made.

Question: How concerned are you that other commodities could fall victim to similar tariffs?

Simon Birmingham: We would be concerned that anything that manipulates or unduly uses anti-dumping laws or the like to the detriment of Australian producers. Every country has a right to apply tariffs in relation to matters of dumping. Australia has an Anti-Dumping Commission that undertakes its investigations in accordance with our laws, but also in accordance with the WTO and other principles that we comply with. And we expect that other countries have that right to undertake such investigations, but we are quite clear and firm in our view that there is no justification to find that Australia’s farmers and barley producers are subsidised or are dumping their product in such ways.

Question: Would the position of tariffs on Australian barley imports amount to economic coercion?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it would certainly amount to a finding that we believe is not based on the evidence available. And the evidence, we think, is clear that there is no basis upon which to believe that Australia’s farmers barley producers are unduly subsidised or are dumping their product on any foreign market, and therefore, such a finding would be contrary to the evidence available.

Question: Would you see it as coercion?

Simon Birmingham: I would see it as a finding not based on evidence.

Question: Minister, just on another matter. The Oppositions, Tony Burke, this morning said that he wants to see JobKeeper not just expanded in terms of having people get it, but extended over the six- past the six-month period. What is your response to that?

Simon Birmingham: I think the Labor Party have failed to establish clear principles around which support for businesses and individuals in response to COVID-19 ought be established. The Government has said at the outset that every response we’re taking is based upon the notion that it ought be targeted to those who need it most, proportionate to the challenges being faced, and temporary such that we can have confidence that we get things back to normal as quickly as possible and don’t create long lasting implications on the budget.

The Labor Party at every juncture have seemed find more people who they think should be eligible for longer periods of time at greater expense. Now, we appreciate the fact there’s been great bipartisanship shown in terms of enabling the passing of legislation to date and welcome the fact that cooperation will continue, I trust, this week in relation to the privacy legislation around the COVIDSafe app. But I would question why it is right now, before we have even got to the review of the JobKeeper legislation, that the Labor Party seem to be suggesting that there is a need — many months in advance — to be extending that expenditure.

Question: Will you on that- still on JobKeeper and JobSeeker will you consider rescinding or tapering back both payments before the six month deadline if you think the economy is strong enough?

Simon Birmingham: We always announced there would be a review around JobKeeper and that review will take place at the timeline the government announced at the outset. And we also have always been clear around the principles that support would be targeted, proportionate, and temporary and that is the approach we will take, and we will listen to the evidence through the review process.

Question: Minister, the states haven’t so far announced any easing of statewide restrictions. New South Wales is the only one that’s definitive said there is to be no intrastate tourism. Are you concerned about the impact that will have on the already struggling tourism sector in the state? And do you envision that Federal Government support for this sector might be more for those impacted by virtue of being in a state that is being more cautious?

Simon Birmingham: I do urge state governments, consistent with public health advice available to them, to enable people to travel freely across their states at the earliest opportunity. Our tourism industry is taking an enormous belting as a result of the restrictions in place from COVID-19, and of course those restrictions should be there as long as the health advice requires it. But equally, they should be lifted as and when they can be and enabling people to get out and particularly visit our tourism towns and regions and to support the businesses and the jobs there is a key part of the recovery.

In terms of the support that we provide as a National Government, it has to be provided on a national basis, looking at the evidence that is available there. States and territories, if they choose to have more restrictive practices than some other states or territories, if they are doing so on the health advice that’s entirely understandable. Otherwise then they need to, of course, answer to and support their communities where necessary.

Question: Will you or Senator Payne call in the Chinese Ambassador to talk about the tariffs?

Simon Birmingham: We’ll certainly continue to have our discussions with Chinese officials and we’ll be looking, over the course of the next few days, as to how we can mount the strongest possible case to ensure that China hands down a final ruling that is backed by the evidence that we have provided, which is very clear that there is no dumping or undue subsidy of Australian barley into the China market.

Question: But you’re going to lose those though, isn’t it? If you do mount that case, you anger Beijing. If you back down, you then effectively bow to that pressure. Like, how does Australia navigate through that?

Simon Birmingham: We’re mounting a case based on evidence. There should be no offence taken by anybody about the fact that the Australian Government stands up for Australian farmers on the basis of evidence that they operate on an entirely commercial basis. As I said before, we don’t dispute the right of any country to receive a complaint in relation to dumping practices or allegations, and to investigate that complaint. But it ought, ultimately, to be resolved on the evidence of the complaint, and the evidence here is compelling that Australian barley producers are operating in an entirely commercial manner.

Question: Minister, do you have any concerns or does the Government have any concerns that a member of the intelligence committee has gone straight to work for a company that specialises in intelligence [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I haven’t seen the details around where Mr Kelly’s going to work. I join others- I haven’t said anything about Mike since his announcement of his retirement from Parliament. I extend, as others have, my best wishes to him in relation to his health issues and thanks for his service to the country and the Parliament as pride of that in the military. In terms of what work he undertakes in the future, obviously he, like any person who has served in sensitive roles, needs to be very conscious of the responsibilities they take when they leave this place into their post-Parliamentary life too. Thank you, guys. Cheers.