• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Australian meat processors licence suspensions; COVID-19 inquiry.
12 May 2020

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along guys. We were advised overnight, through the Department of Agriculture, that four Australian meat processors had their licences suspended in relation to exports to China. The reason given for this suspension relates to instances dating back over more than a year of minor technical errors in relation to labelling or other technical requirements during this time. It’s disappointing that no notification was given prior to that suspension taking effect today. Nonetheless, the Government will work with those processors, as comprehensively as we can, to ensure that not only have they rectified any issues that may have occurred in the past, but they comply with all requirements, and ideally get their permits reinstated as quickly as possible.

We have seen this type of incident occur before. Several years ago, six processors faced a very similar action that was put in place, and work by industry, together with government at that time, managed to ensure that permits were reinstated, and clearly, we have initiated work across David’s department, my department and with industry, to put in place the effort necessary to provide the strongest possible case for the reinstatement of these permits. This is an understandable concern for Australian agriculture. Thousands of jobs relate to these meat processing facilities. Many more farmers rely upon them in terms of selling cattle into those facilities, and it is a very important market for Australia. But I would emphasise, there are many other meat processing facilities that will continue under their approved permits to send product to China as they do, indeed, around the rest of the world. But we will work as hard as we can with this industry, just as we are with the barley industry, to get the right outcome for them, which is the reinstatement of those permits.

I’ll let David say a few words and then we can take some questions.

David Littleproud: Thanks Simon and thanks for your work. Can I just say, I’m proud of our processing sector and the maturity in which they are handling this. There is a level of constructive nature in how they want to deal with this to understand as quickly as they can, to appreciate what has gone wrong, and how do they fix it? And that means we’ve got a mature industry that’s prepared to work collaboratively with our trading partners, understanding how trade is so important to our Australian agriculture sector, particularly the beef sector. So, we’ll continue to work constructively at government-to-government level, but also from these processors that have been impacted by this, work with them constructively, both here and in China, to ensure we rectify this as quickly as we possibly can.

But it’s also a real lesson to all exporters, whether it be to China or anywhere else around the world. There are standards in which you are meant to keep, and you have to adhere to that. So if you don’t, we’ve got to understand what’s gone wrong and how do we fix it quickly. So, just to all of those exporters around the world, please do not take anything for granted. Make sure that you keep the standards in which you’re asked to send that product into another country, because we want to keep the continued supply of beef and other agricultural products going, and we we’ll continue to do that, being a good trading partner, living by the rules.

Question: Minister Birmingham, isn’t this just China coming good on its threats for economic consequences for Australia for pursuing an investigation into the origins of coronavirus. And how are you going to prevent this occurring to other sectors, like these industries?

Simon Birmingham: Look, the Australian Government will treat each issue that comes before us on its merits, and we expect that other governments ought to do likewise. So, on these matters, we, as David has just acknowledged, recognise that the right to export into other countries, just as the right to import into Australia, is one where businesses have to meet certain standards and comply with those standards. And all Australian processors and producers must meet the standards of the countries that they are importing their product into.

In terms of these processors, we think these are minor technical breaches. It is clear that they ought to be able to resolve them. Many of them will have resolved them already and put in place new processors, or made sure that they are thoroughly explained to Chinese authorities, and we hope that they can be reinstated at that point.

Question: Minister, how can you be sure these are- this is about minor technical breaches, and not the position taken by the Prime Minister on his global push for a COVID-19 inquiry. What informs you that this is all about just technical breaches?

Simon Birmingham: As I said, we are treating these issues as issues that Government and producers need to respond to, based on the merits of each that come before us. And now- we can talk about the need the for an inquiry, an investigation into COVID-19, and as I’ve been very clear, Australia — in terms of the setting, of our public health policies and our national security policies — does so firmly in Australia’s national interest. And I think right around the world, people would expect that when hundreds of thousands of people have died, millions of people have lost their jobs and billions of people have had their lives disrupted, of course there should be a thorough investigation and inquiry into it. But it’s in no way related, in no way related to the export arrangements for Australian beef or for Australian barley or for anything else. We certainly don’t see any relationship, and we would expect that no other counterpart country should see a relationship between those factors either.

Question: Minister, if there was to be this level of coordination from China in terms of taxing barley exports and then taxing beef exports, and then taxing whatever comes next, how would the Australian Government view that sort of coordinated trade action against [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t think it’s going to be helpful for anybody for me to take this as a hypothetical if there was to be more to come or otherwise. We support our exporters to access markets around the world. That’s why we’ve negotiated many free trade agreements during our time in government, with China but also with the Republic of Korea and Japan, through the TPP, with Vietnam, Canada, Mexico and many others, with Indonesia coming into effect on 5 July. We also support our exporters to ensure they have the knowledge and skills to be able to comply with the terms of those FTAs and of export conditions that are put in place by other countries. And David’s department does an outstanding job there. We support our exporters through trade promotion work through Austrade, and so on, as well.

Ultimately, it is in the best interest of our exporters for us to stick and work to the policy issues that Australia faces on a case-by-case basis, ensuring we treat them all consistent with the national interest. And the national interest for Australia is that we stand true to our values; that we work as a country to hold firm views that protect Australians, whether it’s on health matters or security matters; but that we also work to engage as openly as we can with other countries, and that’s what we’re doing including in the trade space.

Question: Have any Australian businesses made representations to you or the Government to back down on your calls for a global inquiry?

Simon Birmingham: No.

Question: What about the suggestions that Australia’s being protectionist [inaudible] of steel from anti-dumping measures, and these actions by China might be some sort of reprisal for that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Australia has an anti-dumping commission that works in a transparent way. It undertakes inquiries for which submissions are received. It analyses the data and the evidence put before it, and then it makes evidence-based decisions. We stand by those processes. We absolutely acknowledge the right of every other country to have the equivalent structures in place, including China, to have their own structure around an equivalent anti-dumping commission. But our view is that in relation to the barley case, there is no evidence, even for a prima face case, let alone a compelling case, that Australia’s grain growers are remotely subsidised by Government in any meaningful way, remotely price their product below competitive prices. They just happen to be some of the most productive and efficient producers in the world, and that’s how they’re able to put large volumes at competitive prices into global markets.

Question: Minister, regardless of China’s motivations to pull this trigger now, given the Government has known about these technical issues for over a year, what was actually being done to resolve them if that precedent, obviously it has been used in 2017, to block other meat processors?

And if I may as well, Minister Littleproud, had the meat industry been lobbying the Agriculture Department to deal with those technical issues to remove it as an option for China?

Simon Birmingham: My expectation is that the technical issues we will find have all been addressed, and that the companies, in receiving notification at different junctures, that there were errors or the like in relation to labelling requirements, rectify those and what we’ll be doing is making sure that the procedures and processors they’ve put in place to ensure ongoing compliance are well known to Chinese authorities as well.

David, do you want to add?

David Littleproud: Yeah. Look, the Australian Department of Agriculture has 22 agricultural councillors around the world, in embassies and High Commissions, and they are working to remove those technical barriers, particularly from where we’ve got free trade agreements that are giving us the access. So this is about enriching that and ensuring that we get easier access to our produce. And that’s commodity by commodity. So, we continue to work with every industry body every year around those barriers that continue to be there, or present themselves, to make sure that we are agile, to make sure Australian beef, or whatever produce it is, get into these markets quicker and easier and more cost-effective.

Question: Minister Littleproud, have you- in the past week, you’ve highlighted the pressures that dairy producers in Australia are under. Have you had representations from dairy or any other agricultural industry groups about their concerns about potential trade suspensions into China?

David Littleproud: No, I haven’t. And obviously, we’re continuing to work to ensure that the supply chains continue, not only to China, but around the world. One of the things that we’re able to showcase in Australian agriculture at the moment is not only that we produce the best food and fibre, but we’re one of the most reliable suppliers. And we’ve made investments in continuing to ensure transport links are maintained through airlines, but also keeping ships going. And we’ll continue to do that in a calm, methodical way. Farmers are just going about their business but we’re a nation of 25 million people. We produce enough food for 75 and we’ll continue to need to export.

Question: Minister Littleproud, what do you say to the WA Opposition Leader Liza Harvey, who says the Federal Government can’t actually sort out this issue on barley and it should be left to WA Premier Mark McGowan who has better links with China?

David Littleproud: Look, I’ll leave her commentary to what it is, from a state government. We are working quite constructively through our agricultural councils and through the Department of Trade to ensure that we continue to keep markets open, and continue to secure even more trade agreements. And still remember that we’re only able to finalise and have ratified the Indonesian-Australia Free Trade Agreement, only coming into effect in 5 July. So I think our track record is pretty strong. I don’t think those sort of comments add any value to anybody. I think this is about us being mature, being constructive, as the industry is in trying to secure an understanding of what has happened here, and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Question: Minister, can you say to the four abattoirs today listed today by China, that you are confident that this is because of technical trade-related issues that they’re involved with, and it is not about the Government’s stance on COVID-19 inquiry? Can you say that to those abattoirs?

David Littleproud: Well, that’s what’s been presented to us. There’s a process in place, as there is in barley. The barley process took 18 months to get point- to get to this juncture. This is a technical process that is within the trade, we need to understand that, and we take everything on face value. To speculate is dangerous, and I think you need to deal in facts. And that’s what the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Trade will work through with industry in a mature way, in a calm, methodical way that ensures that we continue to keep our reputation as a great trading partner.

Question: Minister Birmingham, what would you say to those who are starting to say that this is the beginning of a trade war? Is this the start of a trade war, or is that too strong language to use?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Australia’s not in any sort of war. Our intention is to work as cooperatively as we can with our partners right across the region and the world, including in terms of the enhancement and growth of economic and trade relations. I think it is worth noting that right through the early months of this year, our export flows have continued to be at incredibly strong levels. In fact, the latest trade data released last week continued to show record trade surplus for Australia, and that’s a credit to our exporting companies who despite all of the logistical and other challenges they face because of COVID-19, have managed to simply keep on getting on with exporting.

Question: Minister, what conversations have you had with your Chinese counterpart? And do you believe it’s time for the Prime Minister to pick up the phone, speak to his Chinese counterpart, and try and sort this out on behalf of Australians?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we continue to make representations at all levels where we can to the Chinese Government. Our approach is to respond thoughtfully, carefully, methodically to the representations that we get from any other country in relation to trade matters. That’s what we’ll do in these matters, and indeed on broader policy issues. We take those up at ministerial or other levels when it’s appropriate.

Thanks everybody. Thanks guys.