Minister Littleproud Press Conference

19 May 2020

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Last night Australia led the world. Not only in the World Health Assembly agreeing to a review by the World Health Organization into its actions in the handling of COVID-19. But also from what I've been asking for and the Department of Agriculture here in Australia led the world at the last G20 of agricultural ministers, investigating wildlife wet markets. This is believed to be the origination of COVID-19, and last night the world agreed with Australia. We led the world some weeks ago, asking the world to investigate wildlife wet markets, to understand that the last six pandemics since 1980 have originated from wildlife wet markets, and the only responsible thing to do, as a good global citizen, is to come together and to work and understand the risks and mitigants of wildlife wet markets.

We have to understand there may not be mitigants. These are important sources of food supply for many developing nations, but the wildlife elements to these wet markets have proven to be very, very dangerous. Now, the differentiation is very important to understand. Wildlife wet markets bring together wildlife with domestic animals and humans, and bringing them together creates a cocktail that has been proven to be dangerous. So what we're saying is can we eliminate the wildlife element out of the wet market? Wet markets are safe if you remove that, and science has proven that, and I have to say we are leading that through our Chief Veterinary officer, who is the president of the World Organisation for Animal Health. We should be damn proud that an Australian leads that organisation and we will now be doubling down on our efforts to pursue this investigation by experts, even quicker. It's important we get an understanding of this, not just in China, but around the world. These markets exist in other parts of Asia, in Africa and South America. And so we have to get the science right to protect one another.

Can I then also say that, obviously, China's decision this morning - in fact we got late last night - to impose a tariff on our barley producers, to say that I'm disappointed is an understatement. This is something that we will strongly reject, the premise that the Australian barley farmer is subsidised in any way, shape or form. We will continue to prosecute that case. We will now work through the determination by Chinese officials, calmly and methodically, and reserve our right to go to the World Trade Organization to get the independent umpire to make that determination. That will take some time.

In the meantime, can I say to barley producers around the country, we will not take our foot off the accelerator in finding other markets. We have already - only in the last week - opened up greater access into India in getting some of their- in some of their conditions eased to allow easier access into India. We now have a free trade agreement that starts on 5 July with Indonesia, and also within the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are also interested. So we'll continue to work with our trading partners, but we'll continue to prosecute our case that Australian barley producers and producer of any commodity here in Australia are not subsidised. We hold that view strongly.

We'll continue to prosecute that calmly and methodically, work with China as best we can to ensure that we understand one another better. My door is always opened and my phone's always on to my Chinese counterpart and my department who are ensconced in Beijing, are working continuously with government officials there to ensure there is better understanding in the future. Australian farmers can take comfort in the fact that our produce is the best in the world and there is demand for it in other parts of the world and we will pursue those markets vigorously.

QUESTION: Do you think this tariff is in retaliation from China because [indistinct]…?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I'd be very disappointed if it is, because the Chinese Government themselves were party to that agreement last night at the World Health Assembly. So we would find it very disappointing if it is. So we are working calmly and methodically with them. The premise of their argument, saying that we have subsidised farmers through Farm Household Allowance - which is a social security payment - and through programs with the Murray-Darling Basin, are false. The reality is most of Australian barley isn't produced in the Murray-Darling Basin or under irrigated purposes. So we just say- it's now time for us to consider their determination. We're also working today, we understand that those shipments that are on their way to China will not have this tariff imposed on them, from what we understand, from the initial communique from China. But we're getting clarification on that. So we're working with industry and, in fact, Simon Birmingham and I intend to meet with industry as early as tomorrow, to ensure that they understand the next steps, and what we will take as a government to support them in standing up for them and their rights.

QUESTION: Does this confirm we're in a trade war with China?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, there's no trade war. In fact, even today, I think you've seen that there's increased demand for iron ore out of China. The reality is they have used a process, quite fairly, around a belief that we have not been fair in our trade. We prosecute the case, quite strongly, that that is not the case. We will now reserve our right and probably go to the independent umpire to make that determination. That's what you do in a fair trading system. You use the rules. China has been well within their rules in what they have done. We continue to trade openly on a number of other commodities, not only in agriculture, but in minerals and also services. This will not change. But we will continue to make sure that everything is done on a fair and equitable basis and when we believe that it isn't, then we'll have the independent umpire make that assessment.

QUESTION: Should your Government apologise to Australian farmers [indistinct] getting caught up in this diplomatic stoush?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. Australians will always stand up for our sovereign right to make a determination. We did, in no way, ask for confrontation. It was an investigation that we asked for. And I think the world, last night, accepted that view. This wasn't about persecution. This was about understanding of a pandemic that 300,000 souls lost their lives to. That is the responsible thing to do as a good global citizen. The fact that Australia led the way and asked for that review to take place, we should be damn proud as a nation that we led the world. Not only on understanding what the WHO has done, but understanding what wildlife wet markets' role is in these pandemics. We should be damn proud Australia is now leading the world. We'll continue to do that. The reality is they are separate. These are issues in which the Chinese officials in fact raised on barley 18 months ago. So this wild speculation is dangerous. The facts remain that we'll calmly and methodically work through it with our trading partners, and what we believe, as a nation, around something that affects us as a global citizen is important to continue, and we will continue to stand up for that every day of the week.

QUESTION: But are Australian farmers paying the price for that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. Because unless you have evidence to the contrary to say that this barley decision is predicated on that, then you can't make those assertions, they are dangerous assertions to make. This is a process that started 18 months ago, well before COVID-19 came into place, and this was the juncture, coincidentally, of when it had to come to a decision. So, I think you're trying to speculate wildly. They have given reasons which we are working through now, and if we do not agree with those reasons we'll take it to the umpire. That's what you do calmly and methodically. There is no trade war, everyone needs to take a deep breath, take a cold shower, and understand that we produce the best food and fibre in the world, and we have marketplaces that we'll be able to send our barley and other produce into other markets if our producers wish to do so.

QUESTION: So what reasons has China given, and if you've known about this for 18 months, why now [indistinct]?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there's a structured process in place around disputes that does take time and obviously there are assertions made by China and we are then given time to put our case and then they obviously make a determination, and this sort of determination, we continue to provide information to them. So it is a structure process, and it's one that's put in place to protect both parties. And that's what we signed up to and that's- as part of being part of a free trade society that's what we've done and that's why it's taken some time. And we'll continue to work through and use whatever levers are left to us if we see fit. And once we go through the final determination, it only came in last night, my officials and Simon Birmingham's officials are now working through that to take- understand what our next steps will be.

QUESTION: So what are the reasons?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: The reasons are around they believe that Australian barley farmers have been subsidised through- and then through that subsidisation, they've been to dump barley into the Chinese market. We produce barley probably more efficiently than any other country in the world, and so our cost productions is lower than others, because we've had to be. We live in a dry nation and our farmers have been able to embrace technology that have given them the competitive advantage. But there is no subsidisation that is provided to barley farmers here in Australia, we will contest that, we'll be able to prove that.

QUESTION: There's reports this morning Federal Trade Minister Birmingham, is considering an appeal to the World Trade, talk us through that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So, we only got the determination from China last night and we'll work through that and understand what their reasoning is. If we believe that we haven't been understood appropriately, then the next course of action for us is to refer it to the World Trade Organisation, who's the independent umpire, they'll make a determination. We'll prosecute the case that we do not subsidise Australian barley farmers, and that this tariff cannot be imposed.

QUESTION: So you're serious about that, when would you make a decision on pulling the trigger?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well obviously, we've got to go through their determination. And yes, we are serious. I think we've got a strong record on that. Simon Birmingham, in fact, has taken other trading partners to the WTO - they took Canada to the WTO on wine and we took India to the WTO on sugar. So if we believe that we haven't been understood, we have a strong and proud record of standing up for Australian farmers, but we do that calmly and methodically, after understanding the evidence and the facts that are provided to us. We only got this last night and we're working through that now and we'll engage with industry and make a determination in the coming days.

QUESTION:[Indistinct]… for five years, what kind of impact will that have on the local barley industry?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, you've got to understand that it's not just Australian farmers that will be impacted, it's also the Chinese market, they've now got to now go and source significant amounts of barley, not only for feed but for malt for their beer, and it's not going to be the quality that Australia produces, finding that around the world is not easy. And that means that there will also be other markets that our farmers will be looking to pursue, and we've already started that, as I said, with India and Indonesia, the Middle East- Saudi Arabia is our fourth-largest partner with barley and there's other nations within the Middle East that are keen to take our barley. So, we'll pursue other markets as quickly as we can. We're not saying we'll never come back to China, but we'll make sure that we have this conversation and this dialogue constructively to work through to make sure that if we can get to an agreement, an understanding of what's happened, an appreciation of our point of view, then those markets will continue, as do other agricultural markets into China.

QUESTION: If the Trade Minister can't get a call to China's Trade Minister, should Australian farmers really expect any changes to these tariffs over the next five years?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's what we'll continue to pursue, through the WTO if we have to. We've always said, both Simon Birmingham and I have both said that our phone is always on and our doors are always open, and as soon as Chinese counterparts want to take that opportunity up, we will be there, eagerly as anyone else. But until then, we'll continue to pursue other options available to the Government if we see fit. But let's just put this in perspective, we still export a considerable amount of agricultural product and other resources into China and we'll continue to do so. This is a disagreement on one commodity out of hundreds that go over there, so put it in perspective. We will calmly and methodically work through it, but we will stand up for Australia's sovereignty and its- and our farmers' rights.

QUESTION: And what confidence can you give other Australian exporters dealing with China, that this won't impact them?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think that this is a timely lesson to all exporters, whether they be in agriculture or any another commodity, that they have to meet the specifications of the country in which they're exporting to. As those countries that export to Australia, that we meet- that they- we expect they meet those specifications and if they don't, then we reject that product. This is a timely reminder to every exporter, no matter where they're exporting, and regardless of it being to China, that they meet the specifications required of them to export into their country. It's as simple as that. We have to do the right thing, we're a fair nation, we expect fairness in return, but we have to do the right thing when we're sending our product out.

QUESTION: So do you expect these 80 per cent barley tariffs to last for at least five years?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, let me just say that the WTO process, if we pursue it, will take some months if not years, so we've got to be pragmatic and honest with Australian farmers that that will take some time. And that's why pursuing other international markets is so important, and we'll continue to do that as quickly as we can. And the fact that we have a great product to sell makes it a lot easier for government officials around the world to try and get into new markets because our product is sought after.

QUESTION: What's the latest on the four abattoir [indistinct]…?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we're working through with those four processors and the industry themselves, and can I say they have been very calm and methodical on this. And let me also put this in perspective. One of those abattoirs in fact has Chinese ownership, so these are technical, technical breaches that they are working through as quickly as they can. And in fact, my officials in Beijing are working through with Chinese officials. And let me say that the mood between our officials and Chinese is very calm, very constructive, we are working through each one of those. We have seen this before in the meat industry, and again, as I say it's a timely reminder for exporters to understand they've got to meet specifications, otherwise these things can happen. And these are the rules we play with, we've got to live up to them, doesn't matter if we're from Australia, we don't get to cut corners, we have to live up to the specifications set for us.

QUESTION: When do you expect trade to resume for those abattoirs?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, those four abattoirs have a 30-day suspension, and we're hoping by the end of that 30 days that there'll be some appreciation of what they have done and the steps they have taken for- to remedy any of those errors. So, we're working constructively with Chinese officials now and we'll know more in the coming weeks, but obviously that is only an initial 30-day ban and we'll wait for that further assessment later in the next month.

Thanks guys.