Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News Australia

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia-China relationship.

Kieran Gilbert: Foreign Minister, thanks so much for your time. First up, is it a coincidence that the Chinese Ambassador threatens economic coercion and then now we see technical difficulties with two of our exports to China?

Marise Payne: It's great to see you Kieran, and that's an important question because we regard these as separate issues and indeed China has said the same. And it's important for our farmers that we deal with it that way. The barley issue in particular, of course, had been the subject of consideration in China for 18 months or so and I know Minister Birmingham has made a number of comments about this in recent days, and we expected that to come back at about this point in time. We don't accept the findings of the inquiry through the Chinese process and we’ll make an appropriate response through the normal channels to that. But it's important that we're careful about how we manage these things and that's the focus that we're taking.

Kieran Gilbert: So we just say it's a coincidence?

Marise Payne: Well, we say that these are two very important issues that need to be managed for Australia and for the Australia-China relationship. As I said, the dumping question, or the alleged dumping in relation to barley, has been a matter that’s been underway for quite some time. In relation to the meat issue, both Minister Littleproud and Minister Birmingham have been through the details of that. We'll deal with them on their merits as issues and we'll approach the Chinese system in that way.

Kieran Gilbert: Have you spoken or reached out to your Chinese counterpart?

Marise Payne: We are regularly corresponding and engaged on these issues and certainly the Australian Embassy in Beijing is very focused on engaging with all of the relevant departments in China on these matters and I expect them to do that. That's BAU for them.

Kieran Gilbert: Well, the Trade Minister says that he's been trying to contact his counterpart but has had difficulty getting a hold of that individual. Is there a general difficulty at the moment in getting a hold of the relevant Chinese officials that you need to speak to?

Marise Payne: Well, I think there is a huge amount of work being done internationally, certainly by my counterparts, and obviously speaking with many of them at the moment in response to COVID-19. That is a huge focus for many countries. But there are processes of putting in place calls in the diplomatic system and they're underway.

Kieran Gilbert: The dairy industry is worried that they're next. Like a lot of other Australian industries right now, hopeful that this is just a blip and it can be resolved soon. Is that possible?

Marise Payne: The dairy industry is…

Kieran Gilbert: In terms of its trade row that it might spread to other industries.

Marise Payne: Well, we hope that we will be able to pursue a bilateral relationship that continues to be of benefit to both Australia and China and that is absolutely how we see this. It's underpinned by a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and it's a relationship which we work very hard at. Of course, we have our differences from time to time and we deal with those as they arise. And in the context of the issues that we have in front of us now, that is exactly what we are doing.

Kieran Gilbert: But you know, the dairy industry, the Meat Council are expressing concerns that they don't want trade to be collateral damage. Some observers are saying that if you're worried about that China relationship that it's just the billionaires like Twiggy Forest and so on that are making their concerns known, but do you recognise that the livelihoods of many Australian farmers rests upon that trade relationship?

Marise Payne: Well, it is a very important relationship but it's important to both countries and I think it's important that we don't forget that. It is a valuable relationship for Australia. It's a valuable relationship for China. And from time to time, we do have to deal with differences and Australia will always approach those in our national interests. I think that's what Australians expect from us. That is what we are focused on, founded in our values and in our liberal democratic approach to government and most importantly, as I said, in our national interests.

Kieran Gilbert: So is your aim obviously, when Australia won't relent on this call for an investigation and in the face of coercion, no one would argue that, but is your aim now to dial down the rhetoric a little? Remain firm in that call for an investigation but cool things down a bit?

Marise Payne: Well, I think that both the Prime Minister and I and other ministers have been very considered and very focused in the approach that we've taken to what is an unremarkable proposition — that in the face of a pandemic which has seen over a quarter of a million people die, and which continues to disrupt the economies and the lives of countless people across the world, that there should be an appropriate independent investigation.

We don't think that's a remarkable proposition and we think that is a reasonable statement for Australia to have made. What is important is that we are able to work together as an international community towards an outcome on that investigation. We know, for example, at the moment that there is a considerable focus being placed on an EU resolution, a multiple-clause resolution, which is being advanced to the World Health Assembly next week. That's an important part of this process and we're very encouraged by the positive feedback that we've had from many international counterparts, both the Prime Minister and I in recent weeks in relation to the need for an independent review. One thing I would say, though, is that we're very clear that there are many countries which are still dealing with the most critical aspects of this review — of this pandemic, I'm sorry — so the timing of that review will of course be at an appropriate point.

Kieran Gilbert: One of the criticisms that’s being levelled at the Government is that maybe you should have got that support before making the call for the investigation. So you’re backing and the Prime Minister's made it clear, the World Health Assembly – as you just said there – that European Union motion. Would it have been better to rally that support before making the call so we could avoid this sort of retribution that we're copping now?

Marise Payne: Well, I don't think it's a remarkable proposition, as I said, to suggest that in the context of a pandemic which has had the impact this has had, not just on Australia but on all of our partners around the world, on our partners in this region, in the Pacific, in Southeast Asia, to suggest that as an international community we would want to review what has happened and the causes and most importantly how to avoid it again in the future. So I don't think that that is a remarkable proposition. I think that it is a role that Australia has historically played as a responsible and constructive member of the international community. And I'm very gratified – as I said – by the level of engagement and support and encouragement we have received from other countries around the world.

Kieran Gilbert: It is unremarkable, as you say, that the Labor Party agrees with that as well. It seems quite understandable that people would want to get to the bottom of it. Are you surprised by the ferocity then of the Chinese Government's reaction to Australia's call for that investigation?

Marise Payne: Well, every country will respond to these things in their own way. It's a matter for Australia and for me and for the Prime Minister of how we approach these things and how we deal with them and talking to our international counterparts is key to that.

Kieran Gilbert: Some of your colleagues in the Coalition are being very strong in their criticism of China right now. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells in the Parliament last night gave a speech slamming China. George Christensen wants to call the Chinese Ambassador before a parliamentary inquiry. Andrew Hastie and James Paterson have posted on Facebook a petition saying that we can't be silent in the face of the Chinese Communist Party aggression. What do you say to them? Is that appropriate, or would you like them to ease up on some of the criticism right now given how sensitive things are?

Marise Payne: Well, I spoke in the Parliament about this yesterday, in terms of the democratic processes that give us the privilege and the opportunity to be members of this Parliament, to be elected in a liberal democracy. And of course, members of Parliament, whichever side of the politics they're from, have the right and the opportunity to make statements of their own. But most importantly, I think the approach that the Government is taking is a very considered, very careful and determined approach to how we engage, how we manage, what is a very important relationship to both countries. We continue to do that and I think the Prime Minister and I have been very clear about that.

Kieran Gilbert: So it's basically free speech and we move on?

Marise Payne: Well, one of our basic values is the importance of free speech. I would always ask any parliamentarian — it doesn't matter what the subject matter is — I would always ask any parliamentarian to be considered in the approach they take on whatever issue might come before the Parliament. But the values of the liberal democracy of which we are a part are pretty fundamental and — in fact, that's not qualified, they are fundamental — and I made that clear in the chamber yesterday.

Kieran Gilbert: They are fundamental, absolutely. The shadow Foreign Minister, your opposite number, Penny Wong, says that the backbenchers, though, are dictating the tone of this relationship right now, that you need to show more leadership as Foreign Minister to set the tone of the relationship. Can you do more?

Marise Payne: Well, I think the tone has been very carefully set by the Prime Minister and by me in my capacity and other ministers who are engaged on these issues and I think we will continue to do that in an appropriate, considered and a determined way, in Australia's national interests. It's not necessarily for me to have a public argument with the opposition on these matters even if that's what they want. It is for me and for the Prime Minister to manage Australia's complex international relationships and manage complex international issues in the way that we believe is most appropriate for Australia's national interests.

Kieran Gilbert: Penny Wong says you need to do more in terms of arguing that case, that you need to be more public in making that case. Anthony Albanese says today, you as Foreign Minister need to assert discipline on your colleagues. What do you say to that?

Marise Payne: Well, I think that that is an interesting observation for the Opposition Leader to make. I'm not going to engage in partisan politics on this issue. The Prime Minister and I have been very clear and I have been consistently clear, as has the Prime Minister — and consistency is very important in this context — very clear about what we believe is in Australia's national interests, what we believe are Australia's core values, what we believe is fundamental to our liberal democracy, and they are the cases that we will continue to prosecute and most importantly, that we will continue to advocate internationally and domestically, the work that we are doing with international counterparts across a very broad range of engagement. And one thing that COVID-19 has brought to our roles is an ability to connect in a way that I think was not previously the case with very many colleagues and quite readily, on some of these key issues. So that's the premise from which we start. They’re the connections that we make and that's the job that we have to do in Australia's national interests.

Kieran Gilbert: I think many viewers watching today would agree with you on this, that you've been firm but measured. It's the right tone. But I ask you — and this is again- this criticism from Penny Wong — should you personally as Foreign Minister be making the case more regularly? I'm saying this now in an interview and I very much appreciate this interview that you're giving me today, but should you be doing more interviews like this?

Marise Payne: Well, I think you will see if you review the record quite a lot of contributions to print media, to radio, to television that are made in an appropriate time, in an appropriate way. That's the job that that we have at hand to deal with. We, as a government, have a broad range of obligations to communicate with the Australian people, from the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, to the Health Minister, to me, to the Trade Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and so the list goes on. What is most important is that in making comment and in engaging on these issues, that we are considered and consistent and advancing Australia's national interests.

Kieran Gilbert: And what's your message to those Australians who would harbour – and I know many do and I'm sure that individuals have raised it with you, they certainly have with me – they harbour anger at the moment, many Australians, towards China over this outbreak. What's your message to them?

Marise Payne: The message I have is that we need to take a constructive and collaborative approach in relation to this. That, for Australia, it's very important that we’re focused on what's important to us and I think we've been extremely careful in recent months to work carefully together. The National Cabinet are working with the states and territories. The Prime Minister and the leadership team consulting regularly with the Australian Labor Party and their leadership team during these months of significant disruption and the same goes for our international relationships as well and our international engagement.

We need to take a collaborative approach because it's only by coming together after the COVID-19 experience, through the recovery process and into what I would call a transition period, a transition period that sees us come through a recovery and hopefully, as we have looked at, with a much more positive future. It's only by engaging collaboratively in that, that we have the chance to determine the settings that we want to pursue, to determine the support that we need to give to those that we're able to support — and the Pacific would be a very good example — and hopefully put us on a trajectory where our economies are able to grow again, where our international communication is able to be much more readily handled than it is now.

Kieran Gilbert: Well, just on that, last question because you've got to go. But you didn't really answer it before, are the Chinese officials taking your call at the moment?

Marise Payne: Well, we always engage with them. We engage through correspondence. We engage through Beijing. We engage through calls. And I have never had a problem trying to contact my counterpart.

Kieran Gilbert: I appreciate your time Foreign Minister. Thanks.

Marise Payne: Thanks very much Kieran.

Media enquiries