Interview with Peter Stefanovic, Sky News

19 May 2020

PETER STEFANOVIC: China will impose an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley in the latest blow in a trade dispute between the two nations. Joining me now to discuss this is Agriculture Minister David Littleproud.

Minister, good morning to you. Thanks so much for joining us. So first of all, what was your reaction to this news this morning?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I would say I'm deeply disappointed is an understatement. This is a real kick in the guts to Australian barley producers, particularly many of whom hadn't had a crop for two or three years. But we'll get on. We'll get on with the job of producing the best barley in the world and look for other markets. That's the Australian way, and that's what we've already done. We've now got a free trade agreement with Indonesia. That gives us quite a bit [indistinct]. And in fact, only last week, we got some good news out of India that will reduce some of the requirements we have on importing barley into India. That will make it cheaper for Australian producers to do so. So we'll obviously reserve our right to contest this decision by China, and we're reviewing that now and working with industry on that. We've got a record of going to the WTO, to go to the umpire when we feel as though we haven't been understood properly, and we'll proceed that. But you've got you understand that will take time and it will take too much time for this season.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Okay. So for the layman here, so basically, well, China wants to increase tariffs by 80 per cent, so our response is well stuff you then, we'll go to India. We'll go to some other countries that will take our product.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We'll continue to work through with the Chinese to try and get them to understand that Australian farmers are not subsidised and then subsequently dumped barley into their market. We are the least subsidised. In fact, there are no subsidies to Australian dairy farmers, to Australian farmers full stop. So we'll get them to understand that. But we’ll get them, as we have done is to be able to spread the risk, and that's just simple basic principles of market concentration. Not to put all your eggs in one basket, and that's why we pursued so many trade agreements into other markets around the world, to be able to send boats left and right if we had trouble with one market, and that's what we'll try and do now and we'll work through that pragmatically with industry.

PETER STEFANOVIC: So we had a grain grower on the show this morning. A grain producer who said that the losses would be staggering, in excess of $500 million. Is that how you're seeing it? What sort of losses might our farmers experience through this?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well to put in perspective, last year there was around 900, nearly a billion dollars' worth of exports to China for barley. So we'll have to try and find a new home for a lot of that. Now that will depend on where China go to, an issue now is where do they find the barley that they were getting from Australian producers. And it won't be the quality. A lot of the Baltic states have bans on exports at the moment because of COVID virus. Their barley isn't as good as Australia, and in fact, it means that the quality that goes into their beer will be of a lesser standard than that of Australians, but it opens up the opportunity for us to pursue other markets, and China now has a problem of filling that quota themselves.

PETER STEFANOVIC: So it may not be those, we may not experience those losses if we're able to find another market, like you said, whether it's India, whether it's Indonesia, et cetera?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that's what we're working feverishly on now, and we're meeting with industry tomorrow, I think, with the Trade Minister, who's done an outstanding job in prosecuting our case. So we'll work calmly and methodically. We've got some time. There's barley that won't come off until, starting probably October, November. So we'll continue to work with our trading partners on that. And we've also trying to get some clarification on those barley shipments that are on board now. The initial ruling that we've understood and we're trying to get better understand this, is that it applies only from those contracts after 19th May. So we have some hope that those, I think there's three or four shipments already on their way to China now, won't to get this tariff imposed on them. So we're trying to get clarification on that today. But we'll continue to work through it. And that's what we've always done and we'll continue to do calmly and methodically.

PETER STEFANOVIC: The irony, I guess, in all of this is that as you mentioned, that our barley isn't subsidised, but now might it need to be subsidised because our farmers need help from Canberra?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We won't be subsidising. You've got to understand we're a nation of 25 million people. We produce enough food to 75 million, and if we don't engage as well, if we don't trade with the world, then we don't need as many farmers. So we can't change our principles, and in fact we will hold firm to our principles and demonstrate quite clearly even through this that we don't subsidise our farmers, because it has impacts not just for barley producers, but also for beef, and other grains, and pork, and dairy. So we've held firm to our principles, we'll demonstrate that both. But we'll reserve our right and consider going into the WTO to get the umpire to make a decision.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Would you look down the track at imposing extra tariffs on products that perhaps China buys? So for example, our water that some Chinese businesses own, could they experience higher tariffs in return?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, look, a trade war benefits nobody, you only have to see what happened between the United States and China. There's no need for a trade war, we can work through in a fair marketplace, we produce the best food and fibre in the world, we can put ours on the marketplace and get a premium for that, if we're given a fair go, and that's all we're asking for. We won't be retaliating, that won't advance, not only agriculture, won't advance any of our sectors. We'll keep to our principles, that's what the Australian government does, that's what the Australian people do, we stick to our principles, show that we're good global citizens and get on with the job.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Okay. Just a few quick ones before you go, Minister. Of course, the news overnight that China says it will support an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, but the caveat here is that it has to be conducted by the World Health Organization, which I guess in essence is the World Health Organization investigating itself. Is that acceptable?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think what we saw last night was the world unite in wanting to understand this, and we will have oversight over that. And the other important piece of this is what I was pushing through my Department and our Chief Veterinary Officer, Mark Schipp, was an investigation into wildlife wet markets, because that is where we believe the origination of that is. So, it's not just how the WHO has been, handled this pandemic, but also the origins. And we calmly and methodically prosecuted that case at G20, I made that to the ag ministers and now we'll be prosecuting even harder with the World Organisation for Animal Health. We've had six pandemics since 1980 that have originated from wildlife wet markets and we need to understand the risks and mitigants to that and whether we need to phase them out while keeping wet markets going.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Xi Jinping said this morning that it always acted with transparency. What do you think about that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I can only take them on face value. And can I say, one thing I will say about China is that they did notify the World Health Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health that they believed it originated from a wildlife wet market, they came forward and gave that information. And that's why we were very quick, and myself and my Department were very quick at the G20 to ask for that investigation into wildlife wet markets because of that information that they brought forward. So, I think we'll continue to unravel this, and it's not about prosecution, it's about investigation and understanding. I think if we do that, we get better outcomes going forward.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Okay. Minister, just finally, there is a stoush that's going on between New South Wales and Queensland at the moment over whether Queensland should reopen its border - you're a proud Queenslander; should Queensland open its border for tourism?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Well look, I think the Premier in Queensland's got to be very careful about this, not to turn this into a political sideshow leading up to a state election around parochialism, state parochialism. We've got to predicate our decisions on the best medical advice, not just from the Queensland Medical Officer, but from the Chief Medical Officer of the country, and I think that needs to be transparent around where all those officials see the risks and mitigants.

We now have a greater understanding of this disease, virus I should say, than what we had previously. So, I think there's now the tracing app. There's opportunities for us to look at this more pragmatically, and I think the Premier needs to understand parochialism won't help the Queensland economy. If we can do it safely with the tracing app and understanding where people are and what they, what we've put in place, then we shouldn't put ourselves in cotton wool for too long because it's only going to destroy much of the tourism sector and in particular, my part of the world, outback Queensland, that it had 50-60,000 visitors there right now, we will be destroying their economies as well. So, if it can be done safe with the medical advice that's telling us that, not just from Queensland, but from around the country, then I think we need to have that honest conversation.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Okay. Minister David Littleproud, appreciate your time this morning, thanks so much for joining us.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks, mate.