Topics: Australia-China relationship; UK Prime Minister resignation;
Danica De Giorgio: Joining me now live is the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining us. Is this a sign that China does want to restore relations with Australia?
Simon Birmingham: Look, the fact that a meeting will take place is welcome. It’s been an entirely counterproductive approach from China to refuse to meet with the democratically elected government of Australia. That was their decision, their action. It was unhelpful throughout that period of time in terms of not allowing and enabling ministerial level dialogue to take place. And I welcome the fact that they are now going to have these types of meetings. Of course, the merit in the meetings, the benefit of the meetings really will lie in terms of the outcomes that are ultimately achieved. And in that regard we have some very serious outcomes that Australia should expect in terms of the way in which Australian citizens who are detained in China are treated and their rights to appropriate, transparent access to justice, the way in which Australian exporters are treated and the removal of the trade sanctions that have been unfairly levelled against Australia. And of course important issues in relation to freedom of navigation, freedom of flight and the cessation of the type of actions against Australia’s military that we have seen. So there are some very important issues on the table. I noted with some concern the statements from the Labor Trade Minister a couple of days ago, Don Farrell, suggesting that perhaps there were compromises to be had with China. It’s right that we should be sitting down and speaking and talking with China, but we should expect these unfair trade sanctions and these other actions against Australia to cease and they should cease without the need for compromise or without any acquiescence towards Chinese demands.
Danica De Giorgio: In terms of Don Farrell’s comments, though, he said that they’re looking to compromise on the situation. Based on what you said, though, do you think China would be more willing to negotiate in a different approach like that because it hasn’t really worked over the last few years?
Simon Birmingham: Well, as I say, dialogue is welcome and we as a government were always open to dialogue. I made that point repeatedly as a trade minister and that it would be helpful to actually have that dialogue. And it was counterproductive from China’s part to cease that dialogue, because without that ministerial level dialogue, it becomes so much harder to work through different issues. But we certainly shouldn’t be working through those issues by potentially pushing one Australian industry under a bus at the expense of another. We should make sure that the Australian Government and in this case now Senator Farrell and the Labor Government and Senator Wong should all be standing up clearly for all of Australia’s interests in relation to our engagement there with China. I trust that that is the approach that they will take. And that talk of compromise by Senator Farrell was erroneous language on his part, rather than a suggestion that somehow we’re going to concede that some industries can be penalised or punished while others won’t be. What we should be expecting to see is that all of the terms of the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement are upheld in letter and in spirit in principle. And of course those other important matters in relation to respect for the rule of law through the South China Sea, or indeed respect for Australians who are detained in China and their access to appropriate, transparent justice is something that we must ensure Australia continues to advocate for and does not compromise on.
Danica De Giorgio: It’s been a three year diplomatic freeze. Why has Labor been able to achieve what the previous government couldn’t and in such a short amount of time?
Simon Birmingham: It was a matter for the Chinese government to explain why it is they were unwilling to engage in diplomatic dialogue at a ministerial level with the democratically elected government of Australia before. But they are doing so now. That’s a decision the Chinese government took then, as it is one that they are taking now. As I said though, I do welcome the fact that that dialogue is now happening and has resumed. As Trade Minister, I made multiple visits to China and always sought to make sure that we put forward the best case in terms of the mutually beneficial aspects of the relationship. We have very different systems of government, very different values that we bring to the table. But the relationship between the people of China and the people of Australia has and is a strong one. The relationship between businesses in China and businesses in Australia has been and is a strong one and we ought to make sure that those ties are fostered and enhanced at every possible opportunity. The flow of students, for example, between our countries has been a critical aspect to build a deeper, richer understanding between our nations. And the fact that governments may have points of different from time to time shouldn’t get in the way of the rest of the relationship. And it’s why it is so deeply disappointing that the Chinese government sought to level those trade sanctions against Australia, thereby inhibiting that business to business and people to people contact. That is so important to the relationship. And so I hope and urge China to remove those sorts of sanctions and measures that inhibit those people to people and business to business ties, even if our governments continue to have differences of opinion from time to time.
Danica De Giorgio: I want to move on now. Overnight, of course, Boris Johnson resigned. We’ve only just recently been told of the UK Australia free trade deal. Does his resignation now put that agreement in limbo?
Simon Birmingham: Well, it shouldn’t. Boris Johnson has been a great friend to Australia through his prime ministership, sealing that Australia-UK free trade agreement, delivering also the AUKUS security pact between the UK, the United States and Australia, and therefore giving us greater access to much more sensitive defence technologies and capabilities in the future. As well as of course stepping in and providing millions of doses of the Pfizer vaccine at a time where Australia had a shortage of that particular vaccine available to us. So we have much to be grateful for the relationship with Boris Johnson, but our relationship with the United Kingdom is far greater and stronger than any one individual or any one government. It survives always changes of government changes of prime ministership. And I expect that that that should continue. The free trade agreement struck between Australia and the UK is a beneficial one for both countries. We have much to offer each other. It’s a good deal and I trust the new UK government will want to see that come into force just as much as I would hope that the new Australian Government wants to see that agreement come into force to provide enhanced market access for not only Australian farmers and our agricultural sector, but also critically in a range of services areas and for freer flows of investment between Australia and the UK, all of which can only help to provide stronger economies in both of our nations. And therefore I trust that whomever becomes the next UK Prime Minister, they will want to build on these pillars that Boris Johnson has achieved in the Australia-UK relationship.
Danica De Giorgio: But it’s certainly a very uncertain time for the whole world right now. You mentioned the economy, not just economic, but there’s so many other issues. Do you believe that Boris Johnson’s resignations will have any repercussions globally?
Simon Birmingham: I think we have to appreciate that in a country like the United Kingdom, the same applies here in Australia. Our system of government is far bigger and stronger than any individual who might be within those governments. And so the UK is a very strong stance. They’ve taken a leadership role within NATO and across the world in response to Russia’s war against Ukraine. It is a very important pillar in terms of the global response to that invasion of Ukraine. But it’s a pillar that I expect to be unaltered by the events that have happened around the UK prime ministership. Boris Johnson has led, but he has had strong support right across all elements of the Conservative Party in the UK, as he has indeed had from the opposition in the UK for the strength of their response to Russia. And so I would expect that, that will continue quite firmly and forcefully in relation to the leadership role the UK can play. And of course that whomever becomes the next Prime Minister will step up to the plate in that space very, very quickly. So yes, these things are disruptive in a certain way, but we should be mindful that the only the reasons that have essentially driven Boris Johnson from office and to the point of resigning are all lives that to do with domestic politics. They don’t represent any issues in relation to the differences around the UK’s stance on important global matters, be it Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, be it the role of autocracies and indeed the challenges that China poses globally, albeit relations with countries like Australia and the trade agreement we were just discussing, these are all, I think areas that have great support or commonality of position across the Conservative Party and across the mainstream of UK politics. And so we should expect to see a consistency of position there regardless of the leadership.
Danica De Giorgio: All right, Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham, we do have to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.