Interview with ABC News Breakfast

18 May 2020

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Let's get more from the Agriculture Minister David Littleproud who joins us now from Warwick in Queensland. Minister, good morning to you. Sixty-two countries lining up behind Australia. That's certainly encouraging news for the Federal Government.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: This was always about investigation rather than conflict. And quite calmly and methodically, we've asked why and how this has happened. How can we do better? What can we learn from this? That's the responsible thing to do when 300,000 souls have lost their lives around the world. We've done that asking other nations to work with us, and I think we'll get better answers and even the Department of Agriculture, has put out there and I led this to the G20, looking at wildlife wet markets. Six pandemics since 1980 have originated from wildlife wet markets. It is important to understand whether they can be mitigated and if they can't, how do we transition these countries away from the wildlife element of a wet market. That's the responsible thing to do, that's a good global citizen and that's what Australia has led.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. As early as tomorrow, China is expected to finalise its decision to impose those punitive tariffs on Australian barley. If it does that, will Australia take China to the World Trade Organization?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, Minister Birmingham has been quite clear on this that we reserve our rights and he has a strong record that when we believe that our case hasn't been understood properly, that we take it to the independent umpire. We've done that with trading partners like Canada with wine, and India with sugar. So we will look at the judgement by China tomorrow.

This has been something that's been in transition for 18 months; it's come to this junction. We'll work calmly and methodically through it. The Department of Agriculture personnel in China, in Beijing are telling me that it's been very constructive with Chinese officials on the ground. It's very calm, very methodical working through the questions they have and giving them the answers they're looking for. Now, whether that gets lost in the translation, we'll find out tomorrow. But we'll be very strong that we'll stand up to any trading partner where we believe they haven't understood our argument and we'll take it an umpire for them to determine.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. On face value, anybody would see tariffs of more than 80 per cent is an open and shut case for taking any country to the World Trade Organisation.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well again, what's dangerous is to pre-empt anything in the decision. I think what we need to do is forget speculation, wait for the facts. But what we've also done is continue to work with other trading partners to make sure that our farmers are able to look to move their product into other markets. That's what we've done as a Federal Government over the last six years to secure a number of trade agreements to be able to send boats left and right if one market has trouble. And that's the responsible thing to do is to spread your risk, not to have market concentration, and we're giving our farmers and our exporters the opportunity to undertake that simple business principle.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. You talk about spreading the risk, a point made by Simon Birmingham, your Cabinet colleague yesterday on Insiders. Easier said than done in practical terms, isn't it? For instance, how easy would it be for Australia's wine industry to pivot from China to, say, India?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well it's not just India. There's a number of markets around the world that are now looking for Australian wine.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: But very few countries as big as China, and therein lies the challenge for these exporters like the wine industry, who rely so heavily on the market mass of a country like China?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Make no mistake, it's an important market, as is India. But we wouldn't produce enough wine to be able to fulfil their requirements. You've got to understand that we're a nation of 25 million people, and we produce enough food for 75. So we're not going to feed China or India. We are playing at the high end, because we produce the best food and fibre in the world, and that's where our target market is, is the top end. So those numbers, while they're significant, we're not looking for mass production in Australia. We're at the top end, and we'll continue to be at the top end, because that's our market.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Simon Birmingham hasn't heard back from his Chinese counterpart. Have you heard back from yours?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I have. In fact, I reached out and they've come back to me and indicated that there isn't an opportunity for us to talk in the near future about the challenges we've got. But they also made it clear that they're quite confident that at our official level, that they're able to work through this issues and that they're going to be able to get the response they need from our close working relationship to the government-to-government level in there in Beijing. And that's what I said before is that my Department of Agriculture personnel are telling me that it's quite calm and methodical in there. That's not to say that we'll get the answers that we want, but there is no vitriol; there's no anger. It's simply calmly and methodically working through the questions and the answers to try to ensure that we both understand one another.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: But are you concerned? I mean if there was an opportunity for you to have a direct contact with your Chinese Government counterpart, the worsening of Australia's trade relations with China, possibly the worst it's been, it's certainly one, isn't it? So, are you concerned that your call is not being returned?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously, both Simon Birmingham and I, it's not for the want of trying from us. We're going to continue to constructively work with any trading partner that may have disagreement with us in how we've acted. So as a trading partner, we believe we're fair, and that's why we say that we will prosecute that case on behalf of Australian exporters. And if those that we're prosecuting against don't understand it, we'll take it to an umpire for them to understand.

But the best way to deal with this is constructively and openly with dialogue, and Simon and I have both been very open to our counterparts in making sure they understand that our door is always open and our phone's always on.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: David Littleproud in Warwick, Queensland, thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, mate.