06 November 2020

SUBJECT: The Government’s failure to manage Australia’s trading relationship with China.



SUBJECT: The Government’s failure to manage Australia’s trading relationship with China.
HAMISH MACDONALD, HOST: A big and potentially extremely difficult day for Australian exporters today with expectations that wine, lobsters sugar, coal, copper, barley and timber will be blocked at Chinese ports from today. The news that China is shutting the door on those products worth around $6 billion came via a state-run newspaper, The Global Times. But there is still some uncertainty. Speaking earlier this week at a trade fair in Shanghai, the Chinese President Xi Jinping said Beijing didn't want to hurt other economies which, quote, ‘diminishes one's own interests’. Madeleine King is Labor's Shadow Minister for Trade. She's in Perth this morning. The sun is yet to rise, we appreciate you getting up so early for us.
MADELEINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR TRADE: It's a pleasure Hamish. Mustn't grumble - breakfast radio announcer are up at this hour all the time.
MACDONALD: Indeed we are. Is it clear to you what is happening today?
KING: You've hit the nail on the head. There's just so much uncertainty. These reports are based on reports in state media out of China and also the discussions our exporters have with their contacts and people they deal with for many years in China. So I think the Chinese government has yet to confirm it, and it's a bit of a waiting game -- and that's the problem.
MACDONALD: But is that part of the game that is being played, that there is no formal announcement from the Chinese government on this stuff, that you get the news lines out of the Global Times, that the individual sectors are notified internally within China, but at a government level there isn't a formal notification?
KING: Yeah, it's not a good situation to be in. Absolutely, it's a trade block based on speculation and no one's happy about that. But the …
MACDONALD: But I suppose what I’m getting at, is it pointless waiting for formal notification given that we all know this is happening? And that there is some kind of manoeuvering at play, it would seem, whereby it's not stated officially at a government level.
KING: There's no point in waiting to do better on this relationship, I entirely agree with that. At the moment, the Government's played a wait-and-see approach for a number of years, and that's got our exporters nowhere. In fact, it's got them to this higher level of uncertainty and many of them actually are quite certain. I’ve got emails from people in my electorate that are cray fisherman - they just can't believe it's got to this point and how did it get to that point. That's what they're finding so confusing.
MACDONALD: The Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, seems to be at pains to say that it can't be or shouldn't be concluded that this is somehow bullying or punishment for positions Australia has taken on other matters relating to China. Is there any other conclusion that can be reached?
KING: Well, I would agree with the Minister on this point. We just have to play a very straight bat in this relationship. But I think the point is we don't have a plan to make it better, and our Government's been expressing the same kind of sentiment for many years - very disappointed that these things happen but don't come up with a plan to try and fix it. And so there's this wait-and-see approach and hoping it's going to get better without taking action is part of the problem. Part of the problem is we don't have a dedicated Trade Minister. You've got Simon Birmingham currently learning how to run the Finance ministry and the Special Minister of State ministry, which are very large responsibilities, yet the Government can’t appoint a Trade Minister to commit themselves to fixing this significant $6 billion issue.
MACDONALD: Notwithstanding that, there is a clear strategy in that the Government says, well we deal with each of these on a case-by-case basis, we're not looking at the totality of it, we deal with each of these sectors and the impact on the sector individually. Is that the right way, in Labor's view, to do it?
KING: I think they need to bring the sectors in, in Australia, more closely. I mean, I've had correspondence from exporters that have tried to email ministers and don't get responses for more than a week, and that's not fair on those exporters that that they say they're trying to represent to fix this problem.
MACDONALD: But you're talking about this in terms of the domestic response from the Government. I'm talking about it in terms of dealing with China. Should the Government view all of these sectors individually and independently, or do they actually need to acknowledge what I suspect most of the Australian community can see, that there's a whole range of different Australian industries being targeted by China?
KING: I can see value in talking to exporters as a whole. There’s the Export Council, there are groups that represent the export industry as a whole. And it makes sense to consult more with them. But I just go back to what you said about the domestic part of this is really important, because when a government seeks to speak to domestic commercial interest it’s sending a couple of messages. One, that it's supporting them as Australian exporters, but also to those traders in China that we want to trade, we want to help our people overcome these issues, because it's for the benefit of the Chinese people as well as the benefit of Australian jobs and Australian exporters. So that domestic piece is really important in this, in sending the right messages, but doing the right thing by people that have built up these relationships for literally decades.
MACDONALD: Madeleine King, what would Labor's solution to this be if it were in government?
KING: We would have a specialist Minister for Trade, for a start. I mean it’s going to be another maybe six weeks before we get a Minister for Trade that can dedicate themselves to this problem.
MACDONALD: Just to be clear, Australia does have a Trade Minister. It’s just not correct to say that we don't.
KING: No, I said a dedicated Trade Minister. We don't have a Trade Minister that is committed to trade. Tourism and Investment was a not a bad combination, I'll give them that, but to throw the Finance ministry and the Special Minister of State ministry, and head of the Senate, on the Trade Minister’s hands, is a pretty hefty lot of work that Simon has to get through. So I do not understand why the Government can't put a Trade Minister in place before the end of the year, and that's not going to happen. But anyway, that's point one, and the simplest point I think. But I think we've got a situation where a lot of our commercial interests - the traders themselves, whether it’s farmers, miners, fisher people - are excluded from an important national debate. Somehow their voices become delegitimised or put to the side in all of this, and I think it's important for the Government to embrace these people and listen to them and learn from their experience of decades. And from my discussions with the businesses that actually make the jobs, that are going to be affected by this, they're not being consulted enough for ideas and means of trying to repair this relationship.
MACDONALD: But when we do talk to many of these different sectors, they say, ‘Look, you've got to take a much more gentle approach, not so much that the bellicose rhetoric because we shouldn't be taking unilateral steps on things like an investigation into the origins of COVID-19’. I mean, that's the sorts of sounds they make, so is that what you are advocating for?
KING: Well, they also point out that the way Government members have treated China is entirely not helpful. We've seen the statements of Senator Abetz and George Christensen and others. Corporate Australia realise that these are unhelpful comments that Chinese people here, like Chinese-Australians, are equally offended by. So you could rein that in as well. As to the point you raised about the investigation into the origins of COVID, we support that but we do take issue with that it was raised at a media appearance by the Minister, and that's not the way you run diplomacy or how you set about achieving these things. And I think everyone can see that was a bit of a fail by the Government. But all things being equal, even if Labor had done exactly the same thing were we in government. tomorrow is another day and you have to start to build this relationship back up. Because it took decades to build and we need to reinvigorate it, and we need to start today.
MACDONALD: Madeleine King, thank you very much.
KING: Thanks Hamish. Take care.